Finance panel cuts funds for research reserve

Facing bigger state funding deficits than expected, last week the House Subcommittee on Fish & Game cut general funding for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve — zeroing out a $175,000 appropriation for the first Alaska reserve in the National Estuarine Research Reserve system and potentially shutting it down.

“If that cut holds, it closes the shop. It closes the research reserve,” said George Matz, chair of the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Community Council, a citizen group that advises the research reserve.

While $175,000 is just 10 percent of KBRR’s $1.7 million budget, it represents the state’s contribution to a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the minimum amount under a NOAA grant the state is expected to kick in. If the state doesn’t make that contribution, the grant goes away.

“That is the essence of the partnership with Kachemak Bay Research Reserve and NOAA,” said Alaska Division of Sport Fish Director Charlie Swanton.

The Division of Sport Fish, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is the state agency under which the research reserve is now managed. Ten employees work there. Founded in 1999, KBRR also receives funding from other sources such as National Parks, other NOAA grants, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and research grants.

Under a 2006 memorandum of understanding between the Department of Fish and Game and NOAA, grants from NOAA to the state must be matched 70 percent federal, 30 percent state. In the 2013 fiscal year, Fish and Game received $552,436 in federal funds, with a state match of $236,759.

“In order to receive federal funding, the state must demonstrate a commitment to match the federal funding,” wrote Erica Seiden, a NOAA official, in an email to Swanton and Lisa Evans, assistant director for the Division of Sport Fish. “If the match obligation cannot be met, federal funds would need to be returned and the program would be evaluated to determine the future viability of the program.”

The reserve does both research and education. Based out of offices at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, its research activities have included studies of Kachemak Bay shoreline erosion and monitoring of invasive species. It also runs the Discovery Lab education programs and does things like guided tours of Beluga Slough. Its general research program seeks to better understand the reserve’s 372,000 acres and the coastal ecosystem — knowledge vital to understanding issues like salmon and halibut fish habitat.

The Department of Fish and Game said earlier the research reserve would be moved out of the Division of Sport Fish to another agency, but that wouldn’t mean closing KBRR.

“Our commitment is to keep the lights turned on and the doors open,” Evans said in an article in the Feb. 6 Homer News.

If the lights go off and the doors close, that could have other implications. Matz called it “a domino effect.” 

In her email to the state, Seiden said if the state fails to meet its obligations under the NOAA grant, “Alaska may then be responsible for reimbursing NOAA the current fair market value of previous investment in KBNERR real property,” she wrote. “NOAA made significant investments in facilities for the KBNERR including the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and modular lab, dorms and storage facility located in Homer.”

A 5-year lease also is up for renegotiation between KBRR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its space in the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. The $18 million building was dedicated in July 2004 by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, a strong supporter of the project.

Islands and Ocean was built to house the headquarters of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the research reserve. That relationship was critical in making construction happen. Islands and Ocean includes exhibits about the refuge, but it also includes cooperative exhibits done by the refuge and the research reserve, such as a tidal column in the main lobby showing the range of local tides.

 Both agencies offer education programs and tours, but the relationship is so close it sometimes is hard to distinguish between the two. Employees with both the refuge and the research reserve work on events like the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. Island and Ocean Visitor Center sees 75,000 annual visitors, and reserve education programs reach 3,500 people of all ages.

Swanton said he didn’t know what financial issues or penalties would be involved if the research reserve closed.

“We’re still working out some of the details associated with that,” he said. “I don’t have a firm answer on that.”

The KBRR formerly had been under the Fish and Game Habitat Division, but when former Gov. Frank Murkowski moved the Habitat Division out of Fish and Game, the reserve was moved to the Division of Sport Fish. Discussions started about finding a new state agency for the research reserve because the Sport Fish Division did not feel it was the best fit. While the research reserve has some overlap with sport fish programs, “The research that’s covered there doesn’t go directly to sport fish,” Evans said earlier.

Before the proposed general fund cut, Sport Fish Division officials had said the research reserve would continue under it and funding would remain for the next fiscal year. Swanton said funding for the research reserve was in Gov. Sean Parnell’s budget. 

Before the budget cuts, the division had said it would explore other agencies to take on the research reserve. Those discussions are still going on, Swanton said, but he didn’t identify specific partners.

“I made a commitment to look at alternative partners and funding sources,” he said. “This situation has essentially heightened that look for alternative funding sources, more practical applications of what the reserve is about.”

While some research of the KBRR is general research looking at things such as ocean currents and water chemistry, some programs have direct application. A study of coastal erosion looked at areas vulnerable to beach erosion. A recent multi-year cooperative study with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute analyzed the relationship between glacial rebound and sea-level rise. 

The proposed funding cuts came about when House leadership decided the state faced larger deficits than previously thought, said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer.

“We’re addressing the deficits in a much more realistic manner. In other words, trying to trim those deficits back,” he said.

The Subcommittee on Fish and Game told Fish and Game it needed to make $1 million in cuts. 

“Unfortunately, as a division I don’t have a lot of general funds,” Swanton said.

The research reserve was at the top of the list in terms of expendable, noncore programs, he said.

Fish and Game also cut support for Board of Fish and Board of Game meetings and for fish stock assessments. Seaton said $345,000 was cut from the Commercial Fish section. Seaton said he and Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, are working on ways to avoid the research reserve cuts.

“We’re having a lot of meetings over it. Sen. Micciche is also having meetings on it. We’re trying from all angles to get there,” Seaton said. “We do need people to stay reasonable and calm. We need positive ideas for how to work with this.”

Last month, as an example of the Division of Sport Fish’s commitment to the research reserve, Evans cited that recruitment and hiring was proceeding for a new KBRR Director to replace former director Terry Thompson. Thompson last month took a job with the Sport Fish Division to be its new statewide communications and outreach coordinator. In an email last week to the KBNERR Community Council, Evans said she is not moving forward with recruiting a new KBRR manager.

“At this time, I am choosing to remain hopeful that we will find a new financial partner for KBRR,” she wrote.

Seaton said some options for funding KBRR could include city of Homer support and corporate contributions. A fee structure might need to be put in.

“We’re working on all those lines. Even if we are successful this year, people really need to get on the stick,” Seaton said. “A condition of getting it in this year is it’s not going to be there next year (with Sport Fish). Everybody thought there was a much longer time frame to work.”

If the research reserve closes, Swanton said some programs still might remain, such as invasive species monitoring.

“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to continue some of those things,” he said.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.