Legislature cancels ESA conference

Posted: Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Alaska Legislature on Monday formally abandoned plans to spend taxpayer money on an effort to undermine the Endangered Species Act protection for Polar Bears and other species it feared my limit the state's oil industry.

The Legislative Council had allocated $1.5 million to hold a conference and establish a "grassroots" campaign aimed at finding ways to limit the impact of the ESA listing of the polar bear as a threatened species.

Continuing with the conference would likely have embarrassed the state, one critic said.

Meeting Monday in Anchorage, the Council, which is the Legislature's operating arm, officially acknowledged the publicity campaign had been abandoned. Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, was one of eight Council members voting unanimously to cancel the effort.

The conference had been proposed by Council Chairman Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, in February as a way to "defend the state" and work with other states and groups opposed to possible restrictions on the oil industry, following the polar bear's 2008 listing as a threatened species due to the rapid melting of Arctic ice.

While the state had received proposals on what to do with the money, including a conference and public relations campaign, it never took action on them. Without action, the $1.5 million reverted to the general fund at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, meaning the money would have to be appropriated again in order to be used.

"I think this was a non-starter, and it was appropriate to officially cancel it," said Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Republican from Chugiak and member of the Council.

Stoltze said there were worthy proposals submitted, but that it might not be an appropriate role for the Legislature to be taking.

"My disagreement is with the policy direction of doing this type of endeavor," he said.

Gov. Sean Parnell has been increasingly vocal in his public challenge of the Endangered Species Act in Alaska, and last week issued a state study challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's contention that the economic impact of the polar bear listing would be small.

The federal agency estimated a cost of $669,000 spread over 29 years, while those in Alaska contended it might cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 15 years.

State Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said he supported abandoning the PR and conference effort.

"To me, it flew in the face of reason," he said after the meeting.

Alaska has a university doing phenomenal research on climate change, along with coastal communities that are being battered by global warming, he said.

Guttenberg and Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, both members of the Council, were part of a subcommittee which reviewed the proposals submitted to the Legislature.

Guttenberg said he had not gotten an explanation from those who proposed the conference about why they backed out of it.

"Hopefully, they realized they were going to be embarrassed," he said.

Stevens said he spent several "delightful" hours reviewing the proposals, and understood why it was being canceled. He didn't explain further, and was unavailable by phone later.

There will be no compensation for the consulting firms that submitted proposals, legislative staff said, because the state's procurement code allows such cancellations.

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