Longtime Kenai River habitat advocate applies for Board of Fisheries seat

Robert Ruffner

Robert Ruffner

A Kenai Peninsula resident known for his habitat advocacy has applied to be on Alaska’s Board of Fisheries.

Robert Ruffner, outgoing founder and executive director of the Soldotna-based Kenai Watershed Forum, applied for the board in February.

Gov. Bill Walker has two board seats to fill after former Board of Fisheries Chairman Karl Johnstone resigned early upon learning that he would not be appointed for another term. Board of Fisheries member Orville Huntington’s term expires in June. The board is tasked with setting statewide fisheries regulations.

Ruffner joins at least 12 other people who have applied for a seat since the beginning of 2015, according a list provided by Walker’s Boards and Commission’s Director Karen Gillis.

Ruffner is a 19-year resident of Soldotna and has supervised dozens of culvert and fish passage projects on the Kenai Peninsula.

“He believes passionately in good habitat, adequate fish passage, and the removal of non-native plants and invasive species,” wrote chairman of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition Dwight Kramer in an email. 

Kramer, a longtime advocate for private angling opportunity on the Kenai River, also applied for a seat on the Board of Fisheries. However, upon learning that Ruffner had also applied Kramer sent Walker a letter of endorsement for Ruffner. 

“I’m still leaving my name in the hat, in case Robert (Ruffner) changes his mind but as long as he’s interested, I think he would serve the South Central area better than anyone else could,” Kramer wrote in an email.

It is not yet clear when Walker will appoint two members to the seven-member board. Walker’s press secretary, Grace Jang, said the governor had yet to make a decision about another appointee.

According to Alaska Statute, Board of Fisheries appointments must be made by April 1 of the calendar year that a board member’s term expires. However, if a vacancy arises on the board — such as the one Johnstone and Maw left behind — the governor must appoint a person to serve the balance of that vacant term within 30 days of the vacancy being announced.

All appointments to the board are subject to legislative confirmation.

Ruffner’s application to the board came shortly after another Cook Inlet person, Roland Maw, was appointed by Walker to the board.

Maw, a retired commercial fisherman and former executive director of commercial fishing advocacy group the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, resigned the appointment and is currently facing an investigation in Montana over questions of his residency in that state and in Alaska.

Maw was a controversial figure in the legislature after his Jan. 20 appointment. Several legislators, including Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, and Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, questioned his appointment and what it would mean for non-commercial access to fish.

Ruffner, who has not actively participated in fisheries politics on one side of the sport, commercial, or personal-use fishing battle over Cook Inlet fish, could be a less polarizing figure.

“It has been so entrenched, for at least the last decade or maybe a couple of decades,” Ruffner said of the Board of Fisheries. “Three seats are sportfish, three are comm-fish and we have a subsistence seat. I’m a dipnetter. That’s how I catch most of my fish. I’ve been on a drift boat. But, I’m not going in there to represent a single user group. I’m going in there to represent the fish and all users and I think that’s a little different then what traditionally has happened.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he was happy to hear that Ruffner had applied.

“I am very excited that Gov. Walker recognizes the value in someone from the Central Peninsula being seriously considered for the Board of Fisheries and hope a viable candidate rises to the top and is seriously considered by the legislature,” he said.

Ruffner said his first interaction with the Board of Fisheries was over the Kenai River’s hydrocarbon issues. The river was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired water bodies in 2006 due to excessive hydrocarbon levels in July.

The Kenai Watershed Forum — which performed the monitoring study which discovered the river’s hydrocarbon issues — partnered with several other organizations to secure funding for an old motor buy-back program.

Ruffner said he believed the line between habitat and conservation work and fisheries management was easily dissolvable.

“You can’t do anything to one without having implications on the other and vice versa,” he said. “Even though I haven’t been (to Board of Fisheries meetings) advocating for a particular user group, I pay very close attention to what they do there. … I follow those decisions closely.”

In addition to his science and statistics background, Ruffner said his experience working with diverse user groups to try and gain some consensus on habitat and conservation issues would come in handy on the board.

“My promise to the governor and legislature is that I will listen to the public and I will work my tail off to make sure that I am making decisions in the best interest of Alaskans,” Ruffner wrote in his letter to Gov. Walker.

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