KRSMA board opposes Murkowski's new permit plan

Resolution to keep responsibilities under Fish and Game gets group's full support

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

The group responsible for advising Alaska State Parks on issues affecting the Kenai River spoke out Thursday against Gov. Frank Murkowski's plan to move permitting responsibilities from the Habitat Division of the Department of Fish and Game to the Department of Natural Resources.

The Kenai River Special Management Advisory Board unanimously passed a resolution opposing Murkowski's Executive Order 107. Murkowski has said the move will streamline permitting processes, but board members said the opposite may end up being the case.

"The honest-to-God truth is it will slow the permit process down," committee member Lance Trasky told the board.

The governor unveiled his plan to change the way the permitting process works during his State of the State Address. He proposes shifting permitting responsibilities -- often a necessary step in some road and construction projects that cross streams -- to the state Department of Natural Resources.

The plan would effectively give the more industry-friendly Department of Natural Resources final say in issuing permits. It's a significant change since the current process puts state departments at odds with each other when reviewing proposals.

Although the implications of the move are not fully known, it's believed the transfer of permitting responsibilities will affect roughly 85 positions within Fish and Game. Of those, Trasky said less than half will be moved to DNR, while the others will likely lose their jobs. Because fewer people will be tasked with more responsibilities, permitting processes could actually take longer.

The governor's order is scheduled to take effect April 15. However, the Alaska Legislature can override the order.

The main problem board members had with the transfer has to do with the perception that habitat concerns will be brushed aside if the permitting process moves to DNR. Board members said they believe Fish and Game -- not Natural Resources -- is best suited to keep tabs on critical habitat issues. Trasky said important Kenai River fish concerns Fish and Game looks at when granting permits may not get the same scrutiny at DNR.

"Everyone says it won't be any different at DNR, but I think that it will be," Trasky said.

Other board members said the Habitat Division has been an effective, efficient mechanism that ensures basic habitat protections are in place before permits are granted.

"The Habitat Division has been the single most effective agency," board member Robin West said. "I think it's a no-brainer."

Board member Chris Degernes -- who also works within DNR as the Kenai area State Parks superintendent -- said the current system is better because it allows both agencies to have a say in what happens to the Kenai River.

"I think if we vote (to oppose the order), we're voting for what's good for the river," Degernes said. "We all know we stand better on two legs than one. ... The Kenai River would be better standing on two legs."

Despite their strong opposition to the governor's proposal, board members said they didn't want to send the message they have a problem with Murkowski's attempt to streamline government -- just that they disagree with this particular approach.

"I would hope we would do this with a little tact and decorum," board member Paul Shadura cautioned.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to send letters to both the Alaska Legislature and Murkowski registering their opposition to the move and asking the Legislature to override the executive order.

The KRSMA board is not the first group to come out against the order. Earlier this month, former commissioners of the Department of Fish and Game sent a letter to Murkowski urging him to reconsider.

However, just last week, four past commissioners of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities sent a letter in support of the move.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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