My Turn: Biologists, Alaska salmon deserve better

Posted: Friday, February 07, 2003

Gov. Murkowski's decision to eliminate the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's (ADF&G) Habitat and Restoration Division (Habitat) seems as inexorable as it is ill advised. The governor is not a pragmatic guy. The governor's recent attack on Habitat during his State of the State address and his Feb. 3 press conference reflects misdirected vindictiveness. Gov. Murkowski seems to think Habitat is a bunch of obstructionist yahoos rejoicing in the state's economic setbacks. In truth, Habitat is a small division with unequaled expertise, a heavy workload, limited power in executing a unique assignment, and little job satisfaction. Sure, the protection of salmon streams is a pain in the butt, but salmon are hugely important to Alaska's economy, supporting commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries, thousands of jobs, and hundreds of millions of dollars in related commerce. Maybe the people who have protected this economic sector deserve a better legacy than a cheap shot from the governor.

ADF&G's Habitat jurisdiction is limited to Title 16 permits and coastal zone recommendations. Title 16 permits are issued with conditions to limit impacts on anadromous fishery resources. ADF&G cannot deny a permit. Coastal zone comments are collated by the governor's Office, which has the authority to determine consistency after considering ADF&G comments (not much power there). ADF&G can also make non-binding recommendations to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on hydroelectric projects for the protection of salmon and other anadromous fish species. The absence of a habitat division may disenfranchise the state in this crucial process that now protects fisheries from the catastrophic losses of wild Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon experienced in the Lower 48. During our salmon treaty negotiations with British Columbia, Alaska rightly accused B.C. of failing to protect its salmon habitats. Alaska can never use that argument again.

I don't understand (and I certainly don't believe) the governor's assertion that habitat biologists partied hearty when the Ketchikan Pulp Mill closed. Even if the assertion dignified a response, it isn't likely that any state employee would refute the governor. The Ketchikan Pulp Mill closed down a few years ago, but was never much of an issue for ADF&G. The mill was "grandfathered-in" before statehood. The Ward Cove mill was of far more interest to the EPA and DEC. Regardless, I can testify that habitat biologists have neither the hubris nor foolishness to party over the demise of projects in fish streams and wetlands. Projects just keep coming. There is something petty and vindictive about the governor's allegations, maybe because they are silly; maybe because the accused can't defend themselves. As for the Habitat Division holding up projects important to the state (the State of Alaska Golf Course?), Habitat Division's concerns were shared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Habitat's concerns were the least of this project's troubles.

Any urban area in Alaska that still has salmon in its streams can thank ADF&G habitat biologists. As our wild salmon production thins out, you can thank Frank Murkowski. So much for growing the economy on resources.

Andrew Grossman of Juneau was a federal habitat biologist for more than 20 years.

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