Empire editorial: Department shuffle comes down to protecting wildlife

Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2007

The debate over what to do with the state's Division of Habitat is not about shuffling bureaucrats and cubicles.

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It's about restoring one of the state's vital checks and balances that former-Gov. Frank Murkowski ditched in 2003.

Now it's up to Gov. Sarah Palin to decide whether to move the division back under the umbrella of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or leave it with the Department of Natural Resources.

Murkowski was blunt about his reason for moving the division to Natural Resources: to speed up development projects. The move weakened Fish and Game's role in requiring environmental safeguards for fish and wildlife.

At stake are some of the state's most precious resources - Alaska's abundant animal life and the healthiest wild salmon runs in the world. Thousands of people in the fishing and tourism industries depend on them to make a living.

The new governor has decided, wisely, that she needs more information before she rearranges departments like her predecessor. Any reorganization costs time and efficiency in the short term -that's one of the arguments that the Habitat Division should be left where Murkowski put it.

Another argument for leaving things as they are is that Natural Resources is doing its job just fine. Some bristle at the implication that Natural Resources biologists are not as diligent in protecting fisheries and wildlife as those working for Fish and Game.

But this debate is not about the people who are on the job right now.

It's about how state agencies were designed to work together toward common goals. It's about setting up an institutional balance so that when less scrupulous people are in office, the system still works.

The mission of the Department of Natural Resources is to promote development. The mission of the Department of Fish and Game is to protect fish and wildlife.

Sometimes the departments have gone head-to-head when a mine or other project was being permitted. But such debates have allowed Alaska to thrive on resource extraction while preserving its wildlife better than any other state.

Since 2003 and the move of the Habitat Division, the roles of the two agencies during permitting have become muddied. A memo of understanding between the departments was intended to clear that up, but instead the memo has been reworded repeatedly and its convolutions have led to conflicting views on which agency does what.

Five former Fish and Game commissioners staunchly opposed moving the Habitat Division in the first place. Since then, numerous hunting and fishing groups have called for the Habitat Division to be moved back.

It's time to clear up these two agencies' roles, honor their original missions and put the Habitat Division back where it belongs - in the Department of Fish and Game.



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