Layoffs expected as habitat permitting shifts

Agency officials have frozen hiring for 20 unfilled positions

Posted: Thursday, February 06, 2003

The transfer of permitting responsibilities for development projects from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to the Department of Natural Resources will result in layoffs, though it is not yet clear how many, acting Fish and Game Commissioner Kevin Duffy said Wednesday.

The Habitat Division currently issues permits for any activities that affect anadromous fish streams or that have the potential to obstruct fish passage. Those responsibilities will be switched to DNR. Other permits issued by the division - those dealing with state game refuges, game sanctuaries and critical habitat areas - will remain under the division's control.

In addition to the permitting responsibilities, DNR will receive responsibility for some monitoring and compliance activities and applied research activities now under Fish and Game's authority.

It's unclear how long the shift will take.

Gov. Frank Murkowski announced the change last month in his state of the state address, contending the Habitat Division "has been the sole agency opposing and delaying legitimate projects important to the state."

As part of the move, an undetermined number of Habitat's wildlife biologists are being transferred to DNR, Duffy said.

The division has 85 employees. Agency officials have frozen hiring for 20 unfilled positions, and are anticipating layoffs. Duffy said Murkowski's chief of staff, Jim Clark, suggested there might be 50 layoffs, but Duffy said that number was flexible.

"It's a matter of negotiation between the two agencies," he said.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin did not return phone calls for comment.

Duffy said the governor wants to reduce permitting time and permitting costs. The average turnaround is 15 days, but some permits take only a day or two to complete, while others require lengthy multi-agency cooperation.

Figuring out permitting costs is not as cut and dry, said Kevin Brooks, the agency's administrative services director. The Habitat Division receives funding from many sources, a good portion of which is devoted to permitting, he said. The division received $2.2 million in general fund dollars in fiscal year 2002, as well as $700,000 in federal funds and several thousand dollars from other agencies.

The permitting shift has some vocal critics. Last week, five former Fish and Game commissioners wrote a letter asking the governor to reconsider his plan, saying the shift will result in "unnecessary and potentially irreversible harm to these resources."

The commissioners were Frank Rue, Carl Rosier, Don Collinsworth, Ron Skoog and James Brooks. Murkowski has not appointed a new Fish and Game commissioner.

Rue, commissioner during the administration of former Gov. Tony Knowles and director of the Habitat Division under two earlier administrations, said the change will hurt fish.

"It just doesn't compute. You're going to have a lot less people, and Fish and Game will no longer be the one making the decision. How can you have the same level of protection?" he said. "Fish will now have a lower priority."

Environmental conservationists also have complained, saying the move will hurt wildlife habitats and impact subsistence users and fishermen.

Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.



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