Voters may get say in agency's relocation

Petition challenges Murkowski's move of Habitat Division

Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2007

Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell on Wednesday certified an initiative petition to undo a controversial change to one of the state's environmental oversight agencies made by former Gov. Frank Murkowski.

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Petitioner Bobby Andrew wants to remove the state Habitat Division from the Department of Natural Resources, seen as a pro-development agency.

Instead, he said, it should be located in the conservation-oriented Department of Fish and Game.

"Many of us weren't happy when Gov. Murkowski moved it from the Fish and Game to the Department of Natural Resources, because it is going to make it easier for mining companies to get their permits," he said. "That's the way we felt."

When Gov. Sarah Palin came into office, having defeated Murkowski in a primary landslide, she said she was considering moving the division back to its former home.

Saying she feared such a move might cause disruption that outweighed its benefits, Palin has so far held off making the move. It still under consideration, though, said Sharon Leighow, Palin's spokesperson.

Both the Departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Game are studying implications of a departmental move, and are going to submit their recommendations to Palin by the end of November, Leighow said.

Andrew said he began the initiative process three to four months ago when it looked like Palin was going to leave Habitat in the Department of Natural Resources. Now, he hopes the governor will take the action herself so he won't have to go through the initiative process.

Murkowski moved the Habitat Division from Fish and Game to Natural Resources simply by issuing an executive order, and Palin has the authority to move it back without legislative action.

Andrew is president of the Aleknagik Natives Ltd., the village corporation in Aleknagik near Dillingham. He has been working against Northern Dynasty's proposed Pebble Mine, and said one benefit of moving the Habitat Division is strengthening environmental reviews for new mines.

"Fish and Game has more expertise on habitat issues," he said.

Andrew said he expects to be able to begin collecting signatures within a week, but hopes Palin acts first and it won't go to a vote.

The initiative sponsors need to collect 23,831 from 30 election districts to be placed on the ballot, according to the Division of Elections.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com..



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