It's a sad day when good work by professional organizations and volunteers is manipulated into front page and editorial page scandal. The reality is a lot of good was accomplished with the $3 million Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund money spent on the Kenai and Russian Rivers. The facts have been overshadowed by allegations that the money was political payoff and that Kenai River Sportfishing Association had unwarranted power over how the money was spent. This could not be further from the truth. Important facts that have been ignored include:
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Earmarks are old news. As of 2007, Congressional designations under the salmon recovery fund program have been discontinued and federal funds are awarded directly to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which is currently developing a process for distribution. The process fish and game is developing borrows largely from the one pioneered by the sportfishing association, and why shouldn't it? The association's process has been praised for being a model of excellence in managing these funds.
Kenai River Sportfishing Association worked hard to educate many people about the value of using salmon recovery fund money for the Kenai and Russian Rivers and did not receive funding because of any "special favors" between a senator and Bob Penney. The Kenai and Russian River earmark was not given to Bob Penney; instead it was directed to the sportfishing association, an Alaska nonprofit fishery conservation organization that has more than a decade of success and investment in the Kenai River watershed.
In 2004, another $16.3 million in salmon recovery fund earmarks were allocated to groups across the state, yet none of these earmarks have been scrutinized. From 2001 to 2006, a total of $83 million was designated to 28 other organizations within Alaska. Such designations included: $20.3 million to the AYK Sustainable Salmon Initiative; $13.3 million to the city of Anchorage; $5.4 million to the Alaska Sea Life Center; and $3.9 million to the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. For reasons that appear purely political, the Kenai/Russian River earmark (5 percent of the salmon recovery fund total) has drawn the most attention and is being chided as some sort of slush fund. What about the remaining funds being spent across the state?
Not a dime of the earmarked funds was retained by Kenai River Sportfishing Association for administrative fees or overhead. Many other agencies who received earmarked monies did use funds in this manner. It cost the association money to oversee the funding.
Proposals were reviewed and ranked relative to the importance of the issues and information needs they addressed. This ranking and review for technical merit was done in close coordination with fish and game staff. Funding recommendations made as a result of the process were sent to the commissioner of fish and game for final review and action. The department called our activities "highly professional."
All of the projects funded under this program are of proven scientific value and ultimately provide benefits to all Alaskans (and non-Alaskans) who use and value salmon resources. Project proposals addressing the highest priority issues and information needs were solicited from numerous agencies, universities and individuals. This was a collaborative effort with a wide breadth of professional input on the best use for the money.
Habitat and research projects funded with this money are having a positive effect. Responsible angler access and habitat restoration projects have been completed at the Russian River ferry and Soldotna Visitor Center, and research is providing answers to important conservation questions, allowing improvements in sustainable fisheries management.
I am especially proud that results from two of the projects (DIDSON sonar and Culvert Assessments) funded under the Kenai and Russian River earmark were scientifically peer reviewed and presented recently at the annual American Fisheries Society meeting. No other salmon recovery fund process in the state had projects represented at this prestigious meeting of fisheries professionals this year. Kenai River Sportfishing Association didn't develop the system to receive salmon recovery fund funding; we work within it just like 28 other organizations. Good work is being done that benefits all users of this fisheries resource. Those who look behind the politics don't have to go very far to see that.
Mac Minard is a retired biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who works as a biologist for Kenai River Sportfishing Association. He and his wife, Kris, now reside in Montana with their two daughters.