The state Habitat Division has a reputation of delaying and derailing major construction projects and a change is overdue, Gov. Frank Murkowski said Monday.
Responding to criticism sparked by his decision to reorganize the division and give its permitting duties to the state Department of Natural Resources, Murkowski made a case for lessening its power.
The governor listed several specific instances of delays or personal biases - including an alleged pizza party to celebrate the demise of the Ketchikan Pulp Mill - and said the industry no longer trusts the department.
"I think we have seen in the Habitat Division the development of a ... reputation for delay, a reputation for inflexibility and an input of personal viewpoints," Murkowski told reporters.
Murkowski sparked criticism two weeks ago when he announced plans to move the division's major responsibilities of permitting projects from the Department of Fish and Game, which is charged with protecting fish and wildlife, to the Department of Natural Resources, which is charged with developing resources.
The move prompted five past Fish and Game commissioners to ask the governor not to make the change. They argued it would affect the state's ability to protect critical habitat that generate fish for commercial, sport and subsistence users.
Former Fish and Game Commissioner Carl Rosier, who served under Gov. Walter Hickel when similar plans were considered and abandoned, said Murkowski is moving too quickly.
A panel appointed by Murkowski after he was elected in November recommended the governor first appoint a Fish and Game commissioner. Rosier said the move will weaken the power of the next commissioner.
But Murkowski said Monday that jump-starting the state's economy - a major campaign theme - is too important.
Murkowski said he plans to move the division director and several biologists to DNR and make staff cuts. He did not specify how many positions would be cut.
Some Habitat Division staff will continue to perform research for proposed projects and will make recommendations to DNR, Murkowski said. The reorganization will not change environmental requirements, he said.
In defending his decision, Murkowski detailed several instances where projects have been delayed by the division. He accused division staff of leaking information to the press and outside organizations and stalling projects by requiring endless studies.
"Unending demands for more studies have become a hallmark for the way this division often times does business," Murkowski said.
Among the projects the governor mentioned Monday:
• A Juneau golf course where delays in issuing a permit have cost developers more than $1 million since 1996.
• A highway reconstruction pro-ject at Tok, which stalled the Army Corps of Engineers, and a proposed stabilization project for the Sterling Highway.
• Hydroelectric projects at Dorothy Lake near Juneau, stalled out of concern for a nonnative species of trout, and Falls Creek near Gustavus.
Former Commissioner Frank Rue, Habitat Division director for seven years in the mid-1990s, disputed Murkowski's comments.
The Glenn Highway project was delayed while a compromise was reached to protect salmon spawning grounds, Rue said.
Rue said he was not aware of a pizza party held to celebrate the closing of the Ketchikan Pulp Mill, but said it should not affect the governor's decision.
"If someone did something in their private time that offended people, that's one thing. But is that a reason to gut the authority for the Department of Fish and Game?" Rue said.
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