The governor's executive order eliminating ADF&G's Habitat Division is likely to have unintended and unfortunate consequences. The Legislature should stop the move; at least until there can be an objective analysis of the program and how to address any real shortcomings.
Permitting of in-stream work would be transferred to DNR. But permitting is only one of several functions handled by Habitat Division. Many of the projects they review never touch a fish-bearing stream. Timber sales, highways, harbors and many other proposals are reviewed largely outside the arena of Title 16 permitting. Where project modifications would reduce impacts to fish and wildlife, Habitat Division provides non-binding recommendations. Where projects are benign, they are silent. ADF&G has no authority to stop such projects if there is no fish stream permit required. This work is not typically controversial or high profile (with occasional exceptions), yet it accomplishes a great deal of conservation - the kind of conservation that keeps habitats productive in spite of ever-expanding human development.
The governor says that Habitat Division has unnecessarily delayed projects, and assures us that it will be better under DNR. But the transfer does not appear to really be about issuing permits faster. Fish and Game's record on time to issue permits is clear - 14-day turnaround is average. DNR's record is also clear: A huge backlog, and long delays for water rights, land leases, etc.
From an applicant's standpoint, permitting is pretty simple. One application is required, it is submitted to the Division of Governmental Coordination. Coordination among various state agencies is largely invisible to the applicant. Does this really require streamlining?
When there is substantial uncertainty, ADF&G may ask for additional information, through DGC. Some developers apparently objected to such requests, and complained to the governor or his associates. These few, influential developers with friends in high places should not take away the public's right to protection of their fish and wildlife.
The governor clearly objects to ADF&G's advocacy for the fish and wildlife. He expects no fish permitting issues to delay development once DNR is in charge. I fear he is right. I know and have worked with many DNR employees, all fine people. But they are under a mandate to develop the state's natural resources. Given the vindictiveness with which Frank has shoved this plan down our throats, and the public insults he has thrown at ADF&G along the way, I seriously doubt anyone at DNR will take much of a stand in defense of fish or wildlife. DNR promotes development. The fox will guard our henhouse.
As more lenient permitting decisions allow greater impacts to fish streams, productivity of those streams will decline. Results won't be immediate. Frank and company will be gone before this year's crop of cohos return to spawn. By the time population declines are detectable and demonstrated, much will be lost, and probably beyond repair (witness the salmon situation on the West Coast of the lesser 48).
The governor claims that legitimate (and he stresses that word) projects have been delayed by ADF&G. I submit that legitimacy of an individual project is irrelevant to the permitting process. Projects should be designed to minimize their impacts to other interests, especially public resources of such high value as fish and wildlife. Should only non-legitimate projects meet this standard? Who should make the call on which are legitimate and which are otherwise? What criteria should they use? Does the governor really believe that a permitting authority should decide on the legitimacy of a project before deciding which rules apply? Do you? The rules should be applied uniformly, and not show the favoritism.
If there truly are chronic problems with permitting delays, an objective review of the program will detect them. A reasoned analysis will suggest solutions. There has been no such analysis. This move is an attempt to promote development (which is fine) at the expense of environmental quality (which is not fine). The public expects and deserves protection of their unique and irreplaceable fish and wildlife resources. If the Legislature acts promptly, they can protect that interest. If they delay, they will betray our trust.
K.C. Solomon has a master's degree in wildlife biology and has hunted and fished across Southeast Alaska during his six years in Ketchikan and three years in Juneau.
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