Habitat move order sent to Legislature

Order shifts permitting authority from Dept. of Fish and Game to natural resources agency

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2003

Gov. Frank Murkowski on Wednesday gave the Legislature his executive order shifting permitting authority for most development projects from the state's fish and wildlife department to its natural resources agency.

The order puts the Department of Natural Resources in charge of weeding out project proposals that would harm water bodies important for anadromous fish such as salmon. It also transfers to DNR the Department of Fish and Game's responsibility to work with private forest landowners and timber owners to protect wildlife habitat. Currently Fish and Game is charged with helping forest and timber owners identify wildlife habitat and design measures for its protection.

Responsibility for administering the state's Forest Resources and Practices Act, which governs management of forest resources, will be shifted from the DNR commissioner to the state forester, a lower-level DNR official.

"These transfers will permit closer and more balanced coordination, improving the planning process for projects affecting these bodies of water," the order reads.

That executive order, and another submitted Wednesday that transfers the entire office of coastal management from the governor's Division of Governmental Coordination to DNR, will take effect in 60 days if the Legislature does not take action to disapprove the orders, said Murkowski spokesman John Manly.

"I think we're getting pretty good support out of the Legislature," Manly said.

The support is not unanimous, however.

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, objected to the executive order on procedural grounds on the Senate floor, but did not get the votes to throw it out. The order now goes to legislative committees for review.

"My concern is that if we take the fish and game biologists out of the process at the front end, we're going to be adding litigators at the back end," Elton said. "If in fact the permitting process is solely under the umbrella of agencies that are designed to promote resources development, there are going to be an awful lot more challenges."

Elton said permit challenges effectively would increase permitting time. Murkowski has cited reduction in permitting time as one of the main reasons for the shift. The average turnaround has been 15 days, but some permits take only a day or two to complete, while others require lengthy, multi-agency approvals, Fish and Game officials said.

Kevin Duffy, the acting Fish and Game commissioner, has said some wildlife biologists will be transferred to DNR, but he acknowledged there will be layoffs. It's not yet clear how many people will be laid off, but state officials have mentioned numbers as high as 50. Fish and Game's Habitat Division employs 85 people.

Not all of the division's permitting responsibilities will be shifted to DNR. Permits dealing with state game refuges, game sanctuaries and critical habitat areas will remain under the division's control.

It's unclear how long the shift will take.

Critics include environmental groups and five former Fish and Game commissioners who say the move will undermine the state's responsibility to protect wildlife habitat.

Duffy's secretary said he was unavailable for comment today. DNR Commissioner Tom Irwin did not return a phone call for comment.

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