ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The main state agency charged with protecting fish and wildlife habitat moved a step closer to extinction Friday with word that 22 jobs will be chopped May 1 under a reorganization plan by Gov. Frank Murkowski.
Layoff notices at the Habitat Division went out Friday to biologists, supervisors and clerical staff in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan.
Besides the layoffs, 36 Habitat employees were told they will be transferred to the Department of Natural Resources, where they will handle permitting for development affecting fish. The remaining Habitat staff would shift to other sections of the Department of Fish and Game and the division would cease to exist.
The reorganization comes under an executive order Murkowski issued last month that takes effect April 15 unless the Legislature overturns it.
Murkowski said habitat biologists have stymied development too often and that with Natural Resources in charge, the permitting process will be more efficient.
The biologists say they're being unfairly singled out and that the firings and transfers amount to political retribution for having done their jobs in protecting the environment.
Despite sharp criticism from Habitat employees, their boss on Friday defended the governor's action. His department needs to move forward and put the changes in place and not look back, said acting Fish and Game Commissioner Kevin Duffy.
Murkowski has cited numerous development projects the Habitat Division has delayed as examples of why the agency needs to be dissolved. Regional supervisors from Anchorage and Juneau have written detailed memos saying the governor's statements were riddled with errors and omissions. Their memos contain permit dates and project chronologies that contradict the substance of the governor's remarks.
At a news conference Friday, Duffy was asked whether he believes the governor or his staff. There are two sides to every story, he said, and it's pointless to go back and review what has already occurred.
''We're focused on moving forward,'' Duffy said.
Under the governor's executive order, the Fish and Game commissioner will lose his legal authority over fish habitat protection for the first time since statehood in 1959. The power to say yes or no to a development project that affects salmon or other fish would shift to the commissioner of Natural Resources.
Duffy said he didn't view the changes as a loss of to authority to DNR.
''It's not us versus them. It's, 'Can we do the job efficiently?''' he said.
The new Natural Resources commissioner, Tom Irwin, said he's excited about the reorganization and expressed confidence that it will not diminish Alaska's environmental stewardship.
''Everyone wins and the environment is protected.''
Irwin, the former head of the Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks, has said industry and government can work well together and that the relationship between the miners and Habitat biologists in Fairbanks has been constructive.
While the commissioners spoke in Juneau, regional supervisor Lance Trasky was handing out layoff notices to his staff in Anchorage. Trasky, who is also being let go after three decades at Fish and Game, said the mood was grim but that people were more concerned about the public resources they manage than about losing their employment.
''I feel pretty bad. Not so much about closing the door on a 30-year career, but taking this authority away from Fish and Game and giving it to DNR does not bode well for the fish and wildlife of this state in the long-term,'' Trasky said.
The union chief representing biologists sees potential contract violations and said he may file multiple grievances if the reorganization goes through.
''As a union, we're going to be very aggressive in responding,'' said Jim Duncan, head of the Alaska State Employees Association. ''We'll do what it takes to protect our members.''
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