Limiting initiatives not a smart idea

Posted: Friday, July 07, 2000

A small group of Alaskans apparently believe the ordinary citizen is perfectly capable of electing U.S. senators, governors and legislative candidates; can muster enough intelligence to vote on large bond issues; can make reasoned judgments on management of the permanent fund, but cannot be trusted to understand a game management issue.


Proposition #1 on this fall's ballot would change Alaska's Constitution to prohibit citizens from using the initiative petition process to participate directly in wildlife management issues. This is a more serious question than it first appears, and before proponents get carried away with the idea they should stop to consider that this issue cuts both ways. From where I sit it appears those pushing the proposition have not thought much beyond their narrow focus on wildlife management and other political issues.

If these folks succeed they will lose a tool they may need themselves someday. They may also begin a process whereby a tool granted the citizenry by the authors of the state's constitution will be blunted and then, perhaps, broken irreparably. Authors of the constitution spent a great deal of time on a piece of work still displayed as a model for other states, and concluded it was safe to trust the electorate with the initiative tool. They also spent a lot of time discussing management of Alaska's natural resources, fish and game. The board system they established, although altered since statehood, has served Alaskans well. Proponents of Proposition #1 apparently feel they know better than the pioneers who gathered at Fairbanks.

I can tell you from personal experience that fish and game professionals are proud of their chosen field and jealously defend what they see as their exclusive right to make decisions intended to produce abundant fish and game populations. Many of these men and women hold multiple degrees, have years of hands-on experience and truly believe they know, as well as anybody - and surely better than laymen - what steps must be taken to assure a healthy balance of nature. In the fish and game field the prospect of citizen involvement in day-to-day management decisions is the stuff of nightmares.

During my tenure at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and even before that time I was well aware of all this. While I was with the department the top three positions, commissioner and two deputy commissioner positions, were held by non-professionals; Don Collinsworth, Norman Cohen and I were political appointees. Therefore we were constantly suspect. Obviously we had the responsibility of assuring the department carried out its mandate. But had any one of the three of us began unduly directing day-to-day management decisions, we would have met with silent resistance. Rightly so. To the best of my knowledge we did not fall into that trap. Nevertheless, the department's professionals rejoiced when we were summarily tossed out following the election and replaced with a cadre of former ADF&G employees. I guess you could say that in the eyes of some, the balance of nature had been restored in the department. Hard telling what the old pros think of the present leadership of the department. I can guess.

I provide all this background because it's my guess much of the impetus for the ballot proposition has come from present and former ``fish and gamers'' and those who have led opposition to placing a subsistence question on the ballot. Opponents of a subsistence ballot proposition know it would pass. They fear, as happened once in the recent past, that future ballot propositions might pass, tossing science out the window and promoting misguided management. They have a right to be fearful.

In the past dozen years ballot initiatives in several states have led to bad game management. A prime example, and often cited, is the move to prohibit any hunting of mountain lions in one state. The result has been lions showing up in people's gazebos and, even worse, dining on domestic dogs and cats. Critics allege a couple of cougar attacks on people are probably a result of overpopulation. There are other examples.

On the other hand, citizens' groups, using the initiative process, have dramatically resurrected important sport fisheries in several coastal areas, fisheries that now produce tens of millions of dollars in revenues for those states. I am most familiar with the situation in Florida, where coastal snook and redfish populations had been nearly extirpated by commercial nets. The citizenry finally had enough, went to the ballot, severely restricted the commercial nets and the result is populations of both species that have bounced back beyond anyone's imagining. Similar situations developed in Texas and along the northeastern U.S. coast.

My point is this: before proponents of Proposition #1 eliminate access to the ballot for wildlife issues, they might want to consider whether they might someday need that access themselves. Suppose recreational anglers actually wake up and realize the full potential of their political power as a voting block. Imagine a sport fishing group placing a question on the ballot declaring the king salmon a ``recreational fish,'' and providing for harvest only by recreational or ``sport'' anglers. With several hundred thousand sports fisherman in the state it's likely such a proposition would pass. Stranger things have happened.

I fully understand the concerns of those who have placed Proposition #1 on the ballot. An ill-advised management proposal, based on emotion rather than science, has the potential to cause serious harm to a wildlife population with concomitant impact on the human population. The best way to defeat a truly misguided proposal would be for the professionals, active and retired, to use their accumulated decades of experience in the campaign. Alaskans would probably respond to articulate, reasoned arguments, based on science and delivered by a group of professionals, if the public holds those individuals in high regard.

Worst of all, it is not a good idea to tamper with the constitution's provision for the initiative process. You'll hear much more about that.

Warren W. Wiley, a former Juneau resident, political observer and radio personality, now lives in Montana. He can be reached by e-mail at

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