Habitat order takes effect; opponents rally

Posted: Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Gov. Frank Murkowski's executive order shifting the Department of Fish and Game's Habitat Division to the Department of Natural Resources took effect Tuesday. Conservationists marked the date with a protest rally outside the Capitol, and Habitat workers quietly prepared for the shift, which will occur May 1.

About three dozen people attended the rally, two in fish costumes and many others holding signs that read: "Fish Don't Vote, But I Do," and "DNR doesn't know fish." Former Fish and Game Commissioners Frank Rue and Carl Rosier, who have vocally opposed the shift, spoke to the crowd, as did Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, and Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat.

Rosier, who served as commissioner under Gov. Walter Hickel, said it was clear the change was the fruit of resource-development interests.

"We've seen industry run the show before, in the Lower 48 states, and guess what? It didn't work down there," he told the crowd.

Murkowski announced the shift in his January state of the state address, saying the Habitat Division delayed legitimate development, including the Lake Dorothy hydroelectric project near Juneau and Totem Creek Inc.'s North Douglas golf course.

Opponents of the move have complained that checks and balances that exist now between resource development and environmental protection will be compromised and that fish will suffer.

Officials at DNR and Fish and Game maintain the change is about efficiency.

"They are still their own office in DNR. The functionality and the efficiency comes when people who are working on permits are in the same area. The communication is better, the interaction is better. We're not talking about compromising the habitat," said DNR Commissioner Tom Irwin.

When it moves to DNR, the Habitat Division will be called the Office of Habitat Management and Permitting. Kerry Howard, the current Habitat deputy director, will be the director of the DNR office.

Howard said about 37 Habitat employees are being transferred and an estimated 22 positions are being eliminated. About 28 positions are being moved to the sport fish, commercial fishing and wildlife conservation divisions of Fish and Game, she said.

Many of the positions eliminated from Habitat won't affect the permitting process, she said.

"When you take one organization of 85 people and split it into two, often what you lose is the upper management and administrative positions," she said.

One deputy director, three regional supervisor positions and some administrative clerks and assistants are among the eliminated positions.

But Howard also said there were some financial concerns.

"All state agencies are going through budget reduction, and so we were told that we had to have a budget reduction as part of this," she said.

Seven habitat biologist positions and one cartographer position also were cut. Biologists do most of the permitting.

Howard said officials hope the shift will speed up the permitting process. The average permit turnaround is 15 days, but some permits take only a day or two to complete.

"The work load remains. Biologists are being reduced and I guess that means you find a way of working smarter," she said.

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

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