Change will harm Alaska's fish

Authority to protect fish habitat should stay with Department of Fish and Game

Posted: Wednesday, February 05, 2003

As former commissioners of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with a combined experience spanning 30 years, we urge Gov. Frank Murkowksi to keep the responsibility to protect the habitat of Alaska's salmon, trout and other fish resources within the Department of Fish and Game and not transfer this authority to the Department of Natural Resources.

We share the belief that the loss of this authority will result in unnecessary and potentially irreversible harm to these resources that are critical to Alaska commercial, sport and subsistence users.

At Alaska's Constitutional Convention, our founding fathers debated whether the new state should have one resource agency or two. They understood the need to develop our oil, mineral and timber resources, and build roads and highways to open up our vast state. They also recognized that development must be balanced with protection for the fish and wildlife upon which so many Alaskans depend and gave that responsibility to the Department of Fish and Game.

The two-agency approach recognizes the importance of both our renewable and non-renewable resources, and provides appropriate checks and balances in development decisions.

When the first Alaska Legislature passed statutes that define the basic responsibilities of state agencies, it agreed that habitat protection was best served as part of Fish and Game's mandate to protect and manage fish and wildlife. This issue was debated again in 1989 when Alaska revised its Forest Practices Act. Again, the Legislature saw the wisdom in retaining Fish and Game's authority to protect fish streams under the Anadromous Fish Act and the Alaka Fishway Act.

We understand the Murkowksi adminstration's goal of streamlining economic development, but feel the problem he is trying to fix is not rooted in Fish and Game's implementation of its permitting authority. In fact, of the 2,000 "Title 16" permits applied for each year, 99 percent are approved in an average of just 15 days.

This prompt response is due to the professional and experienced staff in the Habitat, Commercial and Sport Fish divisions who work collaboratively to maintain Alaska's fishery resources and their habitat. We do not think it is possible to replicate this capability within another department and doing anything less will erode Alaska's ability to aid development in ways that avoid or minimize threats to our fishery resources.

We know from experience that some would prefer not to worry about impacts of development on salmon, trout and other fish. Life might be easier without having adequate culverts, bridges and buffers around spawning streams, but this comes at a cost to those Alaskans who depend on fish for a job or a meal, and for whom the loss of fish habitat will mean an inevitable loss of opportunity.

Alaskans have long prided themselves on doing things differently than in the lower 48. In fact, Alaska's oil and gas, mining, transportation and timber industries have done an outstanding job of developing our resources while, with the help of the Department of Fish and Game, taking the prudent steps needed to protect our unsurpassed resources of salmon and trout.

When regulatory disputes occasionally arise, the commissioner is able to intervene to assure permit decisions are balanced and reasonable.

You only have to look south to see how many salmon and trout runs have been destroyed or endangered by thoughtless development -- the kind of careless development that will occur without the Department of Fish and Game authority for in-stream permitting.

As we all look for new directions to grow our economy, we hope that Alaskans will continue to be able to enjoy the bounty of their fishery resources. We fear that sacrificing competent vigilance by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game over critical fish habitat will lead to an unnecessary and tragic loss for all Alaskans.

Frank Rue was the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from 1995 to 2002; Carl Rosier, from 1991 to 1995; Don Collinsworth, from 1983 to 1991; Ron Skoog, from 1977 to 1983; and Jim Brooks, from 1972 to 1977.



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