New AG has life-long love for Alaska

Posted: Friday, February 04, 2011

Alaska’s new Attorney General John Burns rode up the Alcan Highway as an infant, shot his first walrus at age nine, raised a bear cub in grade school, did high school homework under the northern lights in Fairbanks and still likes to stand up to his waist in a deck load of Sockeye Salmon in Bristol Bay.

Klas Stolpe / KLAS STOLPE
Klas Stolpe / KLAS STOLPE

“My dad called it bonding,” Burns laughed when recalling fishing on his father’s boat JER-Falcon in Bristol Bay. “I called it bondage. I was known as a ‘peak’ fisherman; I just came up for the peak of the season. But seriously, how can someone not love the State of Alaska?”

That love of Alaska saw Burns take a pay cut from a lucrative 25-year private law practice in Fairbanks to join Governor Sean Parnell’s administration. Parnell nominated Burns Nov. 31.

“My nose was always to the grindstone and I was very apolitical,” Burns said. “But if you live in this great state for almost all your life, when it is time to step to the plate and serve, you do it.”

Born in Raleigh, N.C. where his father was a student, Burns was immediately a passenger in the family car on the Alcan Highway heading north to Fairbanks where the elder Burns, a Fish & Game Marine Mammal Biologist, finished his master’s degree. They went to Nome in 1960. His mother, Joyce, was a flight attendant.

“Right there you have the best of both worlds,” Burns said. “Science and traveling internationally.”

John spent his grade school years growing up in Nome. The Burns family embraced the Native culture of Alaska and young John hunted what the village hunted.

“I spent time on King Island and Diomede,” Burns said. “I got my first walrus when I was, maybe, nine. You get an incredible appreciation for the people of Alaska.”

Burns chased Ptarmigan, caribou, moose, and raised falcons. He also raised an orphaned brown bear cub.

The family moved back to Fairbanks in 1970 when his father was promoted to statewide marine mammal coordinator.

“And they stuck him right in the middle of the state,” Burns laughed. “Figure that out.”

Throughout high school, college at University of Fairbanks and Puget Sound School of Law, Burns worked for the ADF&G as a fisheries technician throughout Western Alaska. He has been up and down the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and is still welcome in all the villages along the way.

“I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I got out of school,” Burns said. “And I came directly back to Alaska. There was no hesitation.”

His love of history growing up initially sparked his interest in law.

“It is our form of government,” Burns said. “We are a very legalistic society and we try to legislate. The ability to work with law to help people with solutions. Being a lawyer was tremendous satisfaction.”

Interviews with multiple law firms Outside held little interest for Burns. “My roots ran deep in Alaska,” Burns said. “And the student loan forgiveness program was in affect in Alaska.”

Burns practiced law in Fairbanks since the mid-1980’s and went into a law practice with business partner Cory Borgeson 11 years ago. He is also an adjunct faculty member at UAF, leading a course this fall on the legal environment of business.

Married for 25 years to wife Christi the couple live in Fairbanks and have two daughters, a 17-year-old in Poland on rotary exchange and a 22-year-old who had attended rotary in Argentina. They plan to relocate to a more suitable location for work.

“The one place I haven’t spent a lot of time is Southeast,” Burns said. “My dad toyed with the idea of being a troller here at one point and I was delighted but it didn’t happen. I have been to Yakutat and Prince of Wales but my time in Juneau now is literally spent 16-18 hours a day at work.”

An avid fly fisherman and river floater, Burns is excited about the Juneau landscape, scenery, and trails.

“In the very short time you are out in this phenomenal country you realize how inconsequential most everything is in the grand scheme of things,” Burns said. “It helps put things into perspective. My family has been blessed with the opportunity to experience a lot and I have had an incredible childhood.”

As attorney general, Burns heads the Department of Law, advises the governor and communicates regularly with state lawmakers. His personal responsibility is clear in the Alaska Statutes, to uphold the Constitution and enforce the laws of the State of Alaska.

“I learn something every day,” Burns said of his new post as AG. “This job is incredible.”

Burns stated the biggest challenge so far is prioritizing the multitude of issues affecting the state. Outside of Alaska is the concern of state sovereignty and the frustration of dealing with Federal regulations and unnecessary overreach, and the federal government seeking to regulate that which they cannot legislate.

“From our perspective, the ability of our state to become a state, to become an independent entity is critically dependent on its ability to develop its resources,” Burns said, quoting Parnell. Burns urges all Alaskans to read the Statehood Act as well. “The frustration is that, I strongly believe that anybody that lives in the state of Alaska, who has lived here for a long period of time, is an environmentalist. You cannot live in this great state and participate in all that we have and not want to see it continue. But at the same time we recognize that you can have different and responsible development coexisting with that ability to participate. The frustration that I see is that the rest of the world does not believe that we are competent enough to responsibly develop our resources. I don’t think that they believe we care about this wonderful state. To me that belies comprehension. Every Alaskan I have talked to, who has been here for any length of time, is here because it is such an incredible state. The thought that we would do something to ruin it is beyond comprehension to me.”

Burns’ outlook is not so much for litigation but for resolving issues.

“But I am not afraid of litigation,” Burns said. “It is another arrow in the quiver, and you use it aggressively and you do so with a firm objective in mind. It is unfortunate the state has to litigate, but we will where it is necessary. It will not be something we do immediately right out of the chute.”

Other Federal issues include the application of the Endangered Species Act and the new designations of Wild Lands, the Environmental Protection Agency’s exercise of authority where it has never done so before and moratoriums on offshore Arctic drilling for oil and natural gas.

“It is an unfortunate situation when the State of Alaska is effectively prevented from exercising dominion over its own resources and its own land,” Burns said. “We need to talk about the statehood act. We are Alaskans; me and you and Jim and whoever else is out here.”

Issues within the state include economic development, public safety, sexual assault and domestic violence.

“For too long that has been an issue no one has wanted to talk about,” Burns said. “It was a dark secret. It has been exposed; the legislature and the community has become focused on it and it will take time to be properly address. It is all departments responsibility.”

Burns stated that resources are not just the answer for addressing issues. Understanding effectively the problem and how to apply resources is just as important.

In his six short weeks as attorney general, Burns has traveled to Barrow, Bethel and Nome meeting with his district attorneys, local law enforcement, and rural leaders. He is planning trips to Dillingham and elsewhere.

“It was kind of comparable to peak fishing,” Burns said of his appointment. “You don’t have time to get adjusted, you are thrown right into it. I want to make sure my department is maximizing its ability to perform. I want to know what we are doing well and what we need to do better. That we have people who want to immerse themselves into the communities and want to communicate. I am a public servant. This is certainly not a job that I aspired to or ever anticipated, but it is a job that I am very humbled and honored to fulfill.”

“That is what we live for, that deck load, putting in the scuppers so you don’t sink, watching the corks sink behind the boat as you try to get the fish on deck out of the net,” Burns said.

Attorney General John Burns is not just standing on the back deck riding the storm of Department of Law activities for the peak of the season; he is here for the entire run, standing waist deep and grinning.

• Contact Klas Stolpe at

523-2263 or

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