JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles' longtime chief of staff Jim Ayers is leaving state government to head a regional office for a new environmental group.
Ayers will resign effective Jan. 4 to become the North Pacific regional director for Oceana, a non-profit ocean conservation group based in Washington, D.C. Ayers will remain in Juneau to coordinate the group's efforts in Alaska, Washington state and Oregon.
Ayers has served as the Democrat governor's chief of staff since December 1994. He leaves as Knowles enters the last year of his second term. State law bars Knowles from seeking a third term.
''For seven years, the longest tenure of any chief of staff that I'm aware of, Jim Ayers has been at the forefront of every major issue that we have tackled,'' Knowles said.
Oceana's President Steve Roady said Ayers will play a key role in the group's advocacy of ocean conservation. The international organization also plans to open regional branches in Europe and South America.
''Alaska plays a vital role in ocean conservation ... We are delighted and honored to have Jim join us as our first regional director,'' Roady said.
Knowles called his chief of staff a ''good friend and an effective coach'' within the administration.
While serving as chief of staff, Ayers said he was proud of what the administration has accomplished in regard to children's issues such as Denali KidCare and Smart Start.
He cited the administration's push to get the federal government to lift a ban on oil importation and safety and environmental improvements within the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
''We have made tremendous progress toward protecting kids, improving our schools, strengthening the economy and preserving and protecting Alaska's waters and habitat,'' Ayers said.
''It's been a battle and seven years is a long time,'' Ayers said.
One major issue left undone is resolving the state's subsistence dilemma
The equal access provision of Alaska's constitution conflicts with federal laws guaranteeing rural residents first priority to fish and game. As a result, federal managers oversee subsistence in two-thirds of the state's land and waters.
Knowles has made regaining state control his top priority and is pushing for a constitutional amendment to grant a rural priority.
A subsistence panel recently drafted a constitutional amendment that is expected to be proposed when the Legislature returns in January.
Knowles last attempt to pass an amendment in 1999 failed when eight Republican senators staunchly opposed to repealing equal access provisions of the constitution voted against the measure.
Ayers said that has been a source of frustration, but said ''we've built the house for subsistence. I don't feel like I'm leaving anything undone.''
Ayers said he has no plans to return to politics. Knowles plans to name a successor before Ayers leaves, said Knowles spokesman Bob King.
Two possible candidates are Deputy Chief of Staff David Ramseur and Budget Director Annalee McConnell, King said.
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