Habitat Director Out, As Walker Administration Shifts Approach To Permitting

(Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)
(Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)

When Gov. Bill Walker took office, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was in the midst of overhauling its habitat policies. Management plans for 3 million acres of fish, bird, bear, and moose habitat were being rewritten in a way that could allow more development. The way Division Director Randy Bates described the approach in a 2013 interview with APRN was: “The idea is can we get to yes instead of can we justify no.”

Now, Bates has been removed from his position, and the new administration wants to reevaluate the state’s approach to land management. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

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The Habitat Division was all set to release its first batch of revisions in December. They were overhauling plans for the McNeil River refuge, a popular grizzly viewing destination, and for Potter Marsh in Anchorage and the Mendenhall Wetlands in Juneau. But when Republican Sean Parnell lost his reelection bid for governor, all of that was put on hold.

The new Fish and Game commissioner, Sam Cotten, says there were concerns that the management overhaul would reduce the level of public involvement. He says he wants Alaskans to have a greater role in land management decisions.

“And it appears that wasn’t the practice in this instance,” says Cotten.

Because of that, Habitat Director Randy Bates has stepped down from his position. Gov. Bill Walker accepted his resignation on Monday, and is currently considering candidates for the vacancy.

Bates began changing his division’s approach to management plans in 2013. Before that, management plans involved a multi-phase review process that had stakeholders working through the rules with state biologists. The plans often contained sections on local knowledge, on research, and on education and outreach.

The new approach would limit the opportunities for public involvement to one comment period, with plans released in a batch instead of individually. Only one plan – the plan for the Dude Creek Critical Habitat Area in Gustavus – has been edited in the new style, and the draft removed the mission of cooperating with the community and considering cumulative impacts of different types of human activity. Sections prohibiting oil and gas extraction and mining were also rewritten so permits could be issued for those activities.

According to an internal e-mail leaked to APRN in 2013, habitat biologists were prohibited from discussing changes with the public without prior approval.

Bates did not respond to e-mails to his personal and work accounts for this story. But previously he has said the changes were necessary to simplify the habitat rules and to give Fish and Game more flexibility with the management of sensitive lands. But Bob Shavelson, the executive director of Cook Inletkeeper and a critic of the approach, says they watered down existing rules.

“‘Streamlining’ is a code for substantive rollbacks. It sounds good — it’s all about efficiencies, and making thing more predictable,” says Shavelson. “But in 100 percent of the cases we see the term ‘streamlining,’ it’s really about rolling back substantive protections. And what that meant in this case was cutting Alaskans out of their rightful role in shaping these policies for our critical habitat areas across the state.”

Shavelson was part of a campaign to stop the revisions of the management plans. This fall, nearly 1,000 people signed a petition expressing displeasure with the new approach. Shavelson says the removal of leadership is a sign their message is getting through.

“This should be a public process,” says Shavelson. “It shouldn’t be happening behind closed doors. We want to have a discussion about the management plans that guide the protection of these special areas across this state.”

Bates is the second Fish and Game director to be removed since Walker took office. His resignation is one of a number of personnel changes that signal a shift from the Parnell administration’s approach to land management.

In December, the governor accepted the resignation of Doug Vincent-Lang, who directed the Division of Wildlife Conservation. Vincent-Lang was also involved with the special areas revisions and has attracted complaints from conservationists, who most recently opposed his decision to terminate a monitoring program at the Round Island walrus sanctuary.

That same week, Walker also installed Sam Cotten, a former Democratic legislator, as his interim Fish and Game commissioner. Cotten has openly criticized one of the Parnell administration’s major priorities, a permitting bill known as House Bill 77 that failed after conservation, fishing, and Native groups fought against it. Last year, Cotten cut an ad attacking former Natural Resource Commissioner and now-Sen. Dan Sullivan for promoting that bill.

Cotten says that when it comes to land management and permitting, the Walker administration does not plan to follow his predecessor’s lead.

“I think we’ll see a different approach there,” says Cotten.

He expects a replacement for Bates will be named later this week.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the location of the Mendenhall wetlands.