Murkowski issues habitat division order

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Frank Murkowski introduced an executive order Wednesday setting into motion a controversial plan to strip permitting duties from the state habitat division.

The governor also issued another executive order to move coastal zone management decisions to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Murkowski -- who campaigned on a platform of growing the state's resource development industries -- said the changes will result in streamlining permitting for natural resource projects. Both measures will take effect April 15 if the Legislature takes no action.

''Moving these two functions into the Department of Natural Resources is the first logical step in creating that more efficient permitting process,'' the governor said in a statement.

The state's habitat division, now in the Department of Fish and Game, has borne the brunt of criticism from industry groups for some of its permitting decisions. Murkowski singled out the division during his address to the Legislature. He said the division has delayed or blocked legitimate projects important to the state.

Murkowski's executive orders were sent to the House and Senate on Wednesday and each become effective within 60 days if the Legislature does not reject them.

Minority Democrats objected to the executive orders and said such sweeping changes should be taken up by the Legislature. Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said the governor has not made a strong case for eliminating permitting functions for that division.

''The political advantage for the governor in this process is it doesn't require an affirmative action by the Legislature,'' Elton said. ''Inaction works.''

Owen Graham, of the Alaska Forest Association, said he supports the changes. The state habitat division has blocked or added costly constraints to federal timber sales through the state's coastal management plan, he said.

''The governor's plan to streamline can only make things better for the timber industry,'' Graham said. ''It's nobody's intent to cause harm to the environment.''

The executive order removing permitting functions from the habitat division would eliminate as many as 20 jobs, said acting fish and game commissioner Kevin Duffy.

It would also shift up to 35 workers to the state Department of Natural Resources. The state habitat division will retain some research functions but the state Department of Natural Resources will be the lead agency in granting permits.

Such a move will not affect current environmental regulations and will not compromise the state's environmental oversight, Murkowski said.

Five past commissioners of the Department of Fish and Game who want to preserve the agency have said they are opposed to the change.

It has also raised the ire of the Alaska State Employees Association AFSCME Local 52, the union representing more than half of the state's employees.

Union spokesman Reber Stein said the organization is reviewing the executive orders and plans to issue a statement as early as Friday.

Union officials were particularly interested in comments made by Murkowski that suggest the move could be made out of retaliation for past actions.

''There are elements of collective bargaining that protect against that,'' Stein said.

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