Legislation to modify state refuges faces growing opposition

 Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska (KTUU)
Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Apr. 30, 2018 at 8:15 PM AKDT
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A bill that Gov. Bill Walker sought for a simple technical fix to boundary problems in state refuges has turned into a controversial piece of legislation that may never see the light of day.

House Bill 130 passed the House in 2017 on a nearly unanimous vote — only two representative voted “no.”

But by the time the bill reached the floor of the Alaska Senate last week, it had been transformed from a measure that not only changed section lines, townships and tract numbers for special state wildlife areas created decades ago, but also changed the names of eight refuges, adding the term “hunting preserves.” It also directed state officials to change how they managed the areas, erasing the word “protect” and replacing it with “conserve,” a popular term for managing hunted species.

About half the refuges renamed in the revised bill are in the Anchorage area and include the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, which contains Potter Marsh, as well as the popular Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks.

The revised bill was proposed by Sen. Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, who said those refuges already allow hunting. And she told fellow senators that officials from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game said they wouldn’t change how they managed the refuges if her bill became law.

“The committee substitute merely, modestly, adds the words ‘and hunting preserve,’” she said on the Senate floor.

“If it’s not going to change anything, why are we changing the words?” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat and one of the opponents of the bill. “Of course it’s going to change something.”

Even if the current administration doesn’t change its management style, what’s to stop another one in the future, he said.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat who is part of the Republican-led Senate majority, responded that the Legislature could always change the law again.

The bill passed the Senate with opposition from Wielechowski and three other Democrats. It had to go back to the House because it was changed from the original bill.

Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat and a co-chair of the House Resources Committee, the counterpart to Giessel’s committee, said in a phone interview Monday that he hoped to bury the bill. Josephson said he’s been assured by members of the ruling House caucus, of which he’s a member, that the bill will not come up on the floor in the few remaining days of the session.

Even though all unpassed legislation will die when the Legislature finishes, he said the bill could be reintroduced again next year. Most of the boundary mistakes are decades old — another year won’t hurt, he said.

Wielechowski and fellow senator Tom Begich, another Anchorage Democrat, said a big problem with the new bill was that it was hustled out of committee by Giessel without a public hearing.

“Maybe these are great changes,” Wielechowski said. “They don’t change the fundamental nature of what you can do in those areas, but the name change, I think, is very concerning to the public, and I think there should have been an opportunity for the public to weigh in and testify about whether these are good or not so good changes.”

In response, Giessel said that “public notice was appropriately followed, according to our rules.”

“House Bill 130 honors the mixed uses of these areas, and respects our hunting traditions, our pursuit of food security, and the stewardship of our land and wildlife resources,” she said.

Begich expressed suspicion.

“I’m not sure what we’re doing by making these changes but I believe they may be more significant than they have been portrayed on this floor,” Begich said.

Refuge advocates outside of the Legislature weighed in on the bill last week. In an op-ed published in the Fairbanks News-Miner, Jeff Creamer, grandson of the original Creamers, said that he found it “offensive” that Giessel would “dictate” from Anchorage how the refuge should be run.

“Our grandfather, Charlie, left this world knowing his land, along with the wildlife that he shared it with, would be protected, and he was honored that the refuge would forever bear his name,” Jeff Creamer wrote.

In Anchorage, Barbara Carlson, president of Friends of the Coastal Wildlife Refuge, said she preferred killing the revised bill to seeing it passed. She said she was well aware that hunting is allowed in these areas, but described Giessel’s changes as “sneaky” and said they should have been accompanied by a public hearing.

“If the bill dies, we lose the ability to accomplish long overdue corrections to boundaries, but it is preferable to seeing carelessly made amendments with the potential to drastically change the public perception and the future management of Alaska’s special areas system,” she wrote.