Habitat Division to return to Fish and Game
By ANNE SUTTON
Published: February 5th, 2008 05:21 PM
Last Modified: February 5th, 2008 05:29 PM
Gov. Sarah Palin announced her decision Tuesday to restore the Division of Habitat to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game following a yearlong review.
An executive order expected next week will reverse former Gov. Frank Murkowski's controversial transfer of the division to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The move will restore permitting functions for mining, transportation, oil and gas and other development projects that affect salmon or other fish to the Department of Fish and Game. Palin said the responsibilities of the division are better aligned with the overall mission and structure of Fish and Game.
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin applauded the division's job under his purview.
"They are professional, they were true to their word, and they did an incredibly good job," said Irwin. However, he added, the transfer back to Fish and Game will address the cloud surrounding the issue and the perception that it may have compromised the integrity of the process.
Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd said the division will continue to promote the administration's goals of resource development and conservation.
"Our permitting project review objectives will be getting to 'yes' and making sure projects can move forward, but making sure they move forward with the appropriate levels of protection," said Lloyd.
Irwin said the staff at the habitat division was first to be notified of the governor's decision, and he does not foresee any disruptions in permitting with the changeover.
Palin said the budget impact would be minimal.
House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the transfer was necessary "if for no other reason than that the appearance will always be that the chickens are now in the foxes' house."
"It's hard enough to get a permit in Alaska. You don't need to have the perception that you are stifling the discussion," Kerttula added.
Senate Resources Committee Chairman Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said it was the governor's prerogative, but he believes the process can work in either location.
"The location is less relevant than the robustness and the attitude with which we approach the task," Huggins said.
Murkowski's executive order in 2003 removed the Fish and Game commissioner's legal authority over fish habitat protection for the first time since statehood in 1959. Murkowski said the division stood in the way of development projects that should have gone forward.
Five former Fish and Game commissioners protested the decision but the Legislature's Republican majority stood behind it.
Palin's announcement comes on the heels of committee hearings on a bill to transfer the division back to Fish and Game.
Sponsors of a citizens' initiative also are gathering signatures to put the issue before voters.
Palin said she was mindful of the activity.
"That did factor into our decision to move this back along with the desire and commitment to build trust between Alaskans and their permitting agencies," Palin said.
Palin said the transfer of 38 positions currently in Natural Resources will be completed by July 1st.