The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is revising management plans for some of the most exceptional areas of wildlife habitat in the state. But critics say that even after an outcry over what’s been called a massive erosion in environmental protections. After vigorous debate in the Legislature and public, though, little to nothing has changed—even as the next step in the process is just weeks away.
The Habitat Division within ADF&G oversees the 32 so-called “special areas.” They’re state lands like McNiel River Game Sanctuary and Izembek refuge supporting wildlife from brown bears to sandhill cranes.
Randy Bates is the head of the Habitat Division, and is to release the first batch of eight revised management plans in the near future.
“We don’t have a target date yet, but in the relatively near future– I would hope in the next month or two,” Bates explained. “At the end of the day what we want is a plan that protects and preserves the area–the natural habitat, the populations of fish and game–for the reasons these areas were designated.”
Once those drafts are finished by ADF&G employees they’ll be made available for public review lasting about 45 days.
“That’ll give the public an opportunity to review that informally, see the changes that we’re proposing, and we’ll have the opportunity for public meetings in Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks,” Bates added.
The informal review process is a way for Bates and his staff to hear concerns or recommendations for specific plans, but in a way that is less constrained by protocol than under the Administrative Procedures Act.
But Ric Sinnot, who retired from ADF&G after 28 years, said that during his time within Habitat the division would spend an entire year working on each plan, identifying every stakeholder–from birders to oil companies.
“And all year long those people would be involved in the process,” he recalled. “You didn’t just say ‘Well we’re gonna do this plan,’ and then go into hiding for a year, and then come out with a plan and go ‘Well you’ve got 30 days to review it.’ And that’s what’s happening now.”
Sinnot is also concerned that the “informal” commenting and review process is not legally binding, and so lacks a meaningful mechanism for public involvement in deciding who will use the special areas, and for what.
“The conventional wisdom is that these things are going to be changed so much that they’re gonna be unrecognizable from the earlier plans,” Sinnot worried. “The pressure is to make them as unrestrictive as possible, so that pretty much anyone who comes in with a permit to do pretty much anything will be given the permit and told to go out there and do whatever they want to do.”
Sinnot’s concerns draw on what happened last year at Dude Creek: the Habitat Division released revised plans for the area covered in red ink, cut in half, with environmental regulations and scientific sections totally scrapped.
At the time, Bates explained to APRN the cuts were the result of a miscommunication with his staff.
But Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inlet Keeper, a conservation group, believes the process fits with a trend coming out of Governor Sean Parnell’s administration.
“Here we have our special areas–these are our critical habitat areas our refuges our sanctuaries–and the administration is making broad-brush changes behind closed doors without public participation,” he explained. “So there’s a real concern about the erosion of democracy here and the behind-the-scenes process that’s taking place.”
Shavelson is circulating a petition that he says has picked up about 800 signatures. It asks the administration to reconsider the state’s criteria for managing the Special Areas. Shavelson also worries that even stakeholders with specific concerns about individual areas will have a hard time reviewing all the information set to be released in just 45 days.
“When all these plans come out at one time it’s gonna be like drinking from a fire-house. There’s gonna be no way for local people to respond meaningfully.”
When it comes to the upcoming management plans, there is no way to get a preview of how they will look, or what changes to expect. The biologists within ADF&G working directly on revisions are not cleared to speak with the public–or even employees in different divisions within the department. That’s according to a year-old memo sent by Bates to Habitat staff.
Bates denies that this amounts to a gag order, the term offered by both Shavelson and Sinnot.
Asked for a response, Bates gave a light laugh and replied, “Not much need to respond to that. I do look forward to the open public process that we intend to have on these planned revisions.”
While ADF&G does not have a set date for releasing its revised management plans– and thus kicking off the 45 days of public review–Bates said the department will publicize the information as soon as possible on both the department website and the state’s public notice system.