KENAI — Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, visited Kenai Tuesday to hold a field hearing for the Senate Resources Committee on how federal management conflicts with local management on the Kenai Peninsula.
Wildfire management drove much of the conversation, but federal land management that limits access to fishing and hunting were also major points.
“We’ve got some serious work in front of us,” Murkowski said. “I think we recognize that in the past 20 years or thereabouts, the management of our public forests, or lack of management, translates to a very real threat to the health and safety of communities not only in our state but really across our nation.”
A panel of five state and local leaders joined Murkowski to offer testimony on conflicts they saw in federal land management policies: Chris Maisch, state forester and director of the Alaska Division of Forestry; Mike Navarre, Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor; Cindy Clock, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce; Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association; and Ted Spraker, who represented the Kenai chapter of Safari Club International.
The federal government is the largest landowner on the Kenai Peninsula — much of the land is encompassed by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Chugach National Forest. Murkowski said her office has gotten complaints that the U.S. Forest Service is not offering enough logging opportunities in the Chugach National Forest, making it more prone to wildfires and insect infestation.
She called for the federal government to give more wildlife management authority to the state and to simplify National Environmental Policy Act documents so projects to alleviate fire danger would be easier to complete.
“We need new, revised and better policies to fix all these issues, and we’re working on it,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski held the meeting at Kenai’s Challenger Learning Center of Alaska to collect feedback from local stakeholders before going back to Washington, D.C., and continuing to work on a draft for a wildfire management bill.
Last week, she introduced the draft to change the way federal firefighting money is withdrawn. Currently all the funds are withdrawn from one account, which takes resources away from other activities in the forests, she said.
Maisch said at the hearing that the Division of Forestry expects April through late June to have greater than normal fire activity in the Mat-Su Valley and on the Kenai Peninsula. This year, there have already been 15 carry-over fires statewide, which are fires that crop up from hotspots in the areas that burned in prior years.
He called for a streamlined approach to NEPA applications, which would allow federal agencies to respond more quickly to changing environmental conditions.
He said he supports the draft legislation Murkowski put forward but called for a budget cap adjustment because fighting fires has become more expensive, possibly including an ability for fire managers to access funds from the Federal Emergency Management Authority under a disaster declaration.
“(The year) 2004 was the tipping point for this state,” Maisch said. “We went from burning about 800,000 acres a year to now almost 2 million a year, on average. I think due to long term climate issues, we’ve seen a big change in the amount of fire on the landscape and an elongated season.”
Navarre said one major contributor to fire prevention on the Kenai Peninsula has been to leverage state and federal funds into the spruce bark beetle prevention programs on the peninsula.
He said when he originally put forward a plan to thin some of the trees on the peninsula during the spruce bark beetle infestation, he received opposition from some of the environmental agencies in Washington, D.C.
“I recognize the need to talk to these folks about what it is going on,” Navarre said. “I met with the state forestry and met with the federal forestry and put together a task force that was a very collaborative effort to work with everybody … to try to make sure that we could identify the problem and find a way to work through it.”
The peninsula has been lucky over the years to get significant funding to help alleviate the problem, but those grant programs need to be renewed to keep up the work, he said. Cooperation between the agencies has not been unduly burdensome, Navarre said later in the hearing — complaints are usually about specific issues.
Local managers have been helpful and willing to cooperate with his administration, Navarre said. Some of them may have orders coming from Washington, D.C., which can cause conflicts, so the management should include local influence, he said.
Murkowski also asked for feedback on access to public lands. A recent ruling on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge that would block hunters from baiting bears on refuge lands, as well as other changes related to game, have raised concerns among hunters.
Spraker, who is also the chair of the state Board of Game but was only representing the Safari Club at the hearing, said the conflicting rules between federal managers and state managers will confuse hunters.
“The refuge should allow the taking of bears because this is a difficult place to hunt bears because of the dense vegetation, and the use of bait is a very successful method,” Spraker said. “It’s also been proven that hunters can be very selective, and one of the management tools on harvesting bears was not to take too many adult females. That works very well if you have a bait station and you can take your time and be selective. That’s an inconsistency between federal and state agencies that I wish we could address.”
Spraker is also concerned that the refuge seems to have adopted a policy of “closed until open” for hunters rather than vice versa, he said. Moose hunting participation has declined in recent years, and unless managers can actively control predators and boost the population, the numbers of moose on the peninsula may continue to drop, he said.
“Until the service’s passive management policies driven by preservationist ideology and natural diversity and biological integrity are removed, no one should have any hope that the moose population will recover,” Spraker said.
Murkowski said in an interview after the field hearing that she appreciated the feedback and will keep the comments in mind as she continues to work on the legislation.
“We’ll be looking at this record that we have created today and (asking), ‘How do the federal managers work with the state?’” Murkowski said. “The ability to have these fuel breaks is critically important … you’re leaving (the community) in a threatening situation, because you are not managing this land.”
Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at email@example.com.