Voices of the Peninsula: Kachemak Bay Research Reserve in jeopardy

Budget cuts recently requested by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) will close the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve (KBRR). Of course that’s not the way ADF&G would prefer to say it, but that’s the reality. Last week ADF&G’s Sport Fish Division (SFD), which “manages” KBRR, requested that the House Finance Fish and Game Subcommittee delete $175,000 in General Funds from KBRR’s FY 2015 budget — which the subcommittee agreed to. The significance is that this funding provides the match KBRR needs to secure a much larger amount of funding from NOAA. Remove the match and there is a domino effect that not only loses NOAA funding but also project funding that depends on operational support. It could even impact operations of the Island and Oceans Visitors Center. In April the state needs to renew KBRR’s five year lease with the Visitors Center, which now has uncertainty.

What will end if the House and Senate Finance Committees accept ADF&G’s requests are some highly beneficial research and monitoring programs within Kachemak Bay watersheds and coastal areas, popular education programs such as the Discovery Labs, and the informative Coastal Training Program’s workshops and training for scientists and the public.

Last December the Community Council was informed by the SFD that it wanted to divest itself of KBRR. Director Charlie Swanton and Assistant Director Lisa Evans told us that reduced SFD funding, primarily because of fewer sport fish license sales, was forcing further budget cuts. In addition, reductions in state funding was looming on the horizon.

We were told that KBRR did not contribute anything meaningful to the management of Alaska’s sport fisheries and was therefore expendable. We questioned that, pointing out that KBRR’s professionally acclaimed research in local headwater streams should allow SFD to estimate how many salmon could be produced by that habitat, but Charlie said that this research was not useful. We also pointed out that the mission of National Estuarine Research Reserve program (under which KBRR was organized) was broader than SFD’s and that KBRR’s funding should not be tied to sport fish licenses sales — but to no avail. Restricting KBRR to SFD’s mission misses a lot of opportunity.

In a follow-up letter to Lisa we questioned why KBRR’s budget is in the same component as the SFD. This lack of transparency commingles agencies having significantly different missions and funding sources. The letter was never answered.

Given a rather nonnegotiable situation, we asked how much time is available to find another partner that would be a better fit for KBRR. We were told that the budget for the second half of this fiscal year was firm and that about the same amount of GF funding was included in the Governor’s budget for next year. While 18 months isn’t much for a change that needs time consuming levels of approval, we vowed to see what can be accomplished. The SFD said that by mid-January they would have a plan for the vacant KBRR manager’s position as well as potential partners and keep stakeholders informed. But no news was forthcoming. At the Community Council quarterly meeting on Feb. 25th we learned that nothing has been done.

Then two days later council members were asked to attend an emergency conference call with Charlie. He informed council and staff that the legislature was asking each department for more budget cuts and SFD decided to recommend that all of KBRR’s GF match be cut. Now instead of having 18 months to find a new partner, we had three months. An impossible task. We said that this is not only closing KBRR doors at the end of this fiscal year, but a self-imposed budget cut on SFD since it will no longer receive a 14 percent overhead charge from KBRR grants. But, again, our plea was to no avail.

Now our only hope of saving the KBRR program is to convince the House and Senate Finance Committees that while there is need for budget cuts there is no need for closure of an agency, particularly one that has not only provided well respected and publicly supported research and educational programs, but returns about three dollars for every dollar of GF support it receives.

At this desperate moment in time the KBRR Community Council is asking all local residents who have benefitted from KBRR’s research and/or educational programs to send a quick email of support to the House Finance Committee and ask that HB 266 include KBRR’s essential GF match. This funding will not only allow KBRR to keep its doors open, but allow the time needed to arrange a more understanding partnership. Both Representative Seaton and Senator Micciche are actively and effectively engaged in this issue, but they need our help.

George Matz is Chair of the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve Community Council.

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