Groundhog Day came Monday evening for Robert Ruffner.
The Soldotna conservationist got a call from Gov. Bill Walker Monday night asking if he would accept a nomination to the state Board of Fisheries again, nearly a year after his first confirmation narrowly failed to pass the Legislature.
Ruffner said the call came as a surprise. After a talk with his wife, he decided he was up for another round.
“I don’t know how it’s going to turn out — I didn’t even think I was eligible for a year,” Ruffner said. “Nothing’s changed, I think I’d be good at doing the job. Hopefully there will be less drama this year.”
Gov. Bill Walker initially appointed Ruffner to the Board of Fisheries in March 2015, but the Legislature failed to confirm him after political fighting led to a controversial vote. Opponents said his appointment would upset the balance of the board and that his residence in Soldotna would make him inaccessible to Anchorage and Mat-Su fishermen.
Ruffner said he believes this year won’t breed the same kind of ugly political fighting that led to his narrow defeat in 2015.
“I have had the assurances that it won’t happen, and I hope it won’t,” he said.
Ruffner is one of three new appointments to the Board of Fisheries announced Tuesday. The governor has to fill the seats of current members Tom Kluberton, Fritz Johnson and Robert Mumford. Kluberton and Johnson’s terms are due to end in June, but Mumford chose to resign, effective March 14, 2016, although his term originally was to end in June 2018.
Walker said in a press release that Ruffner will not be taking Mumford’s seat, the seat he was originally nominated for. That seat will go to Alan Cain of Anchorage, a former Alaska State Wildlife Trooper. Israel Payton, a Wasilla resident who grew up in the village of Skwentna with a subsistence lifestyle, will take the remaining seat, according to the governor’s announcement.
Ruffner received wide support on the Kenai Peninsula, from local governments and fishing groups alike. His opponents, mainly the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, said his supporters came too heavily from commercial fisheries and he would be likely to favor them.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, who testified to the Legislature in support of Ruffner’s confirmation in April 2015, said he heard the rumor of Ruffner’s reappointment. Navarre said he thinks Ruffner is still an excellent choice for the Board of Fisheries and works toward a consensus, which would benefit all the user groups on the peninsula as well as in the state.
“What happened in April was unfortunate,” Navarre said. “I hope that certain members of the Legislature will be open-minded and look at certain qualifications and not try to characterize him as being catering to one user group over another.”
Dave Athons, a former Alaska Department of Fish & Game biologist who supported Ruffner during his first nomination process, said he still supports Ruffner as a candidate. He said he preferred having someone with a biological background to someone with an allocative agenda.
“I support Robert. I think he would be a really good board member,” Athons said. “The board process has gotten so very political, people taking sides.”
The main objection to Ruffner’s nomination in 2015 was that he would be taking the seat Karl Johnstone had occupied, which Ruffner’s opponents claimed was a traditionally sportfish seat. Ricky Gease, the executive director of Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the organization does not plan to oppose Ruffner’s nomination this time because he will be taking Fritz Johnson’s seat, which he said was traditionally for commercial fishing.
“Robert (Ruffner) is definitely qualified to serve on the board,” Gease said. “Last year, our concerns were dealing with commercial and sport seats. There was one position on the board, and there was a long-term history of balance on the board. The governor has a different vision.”
The opening of three seats offered the state government a chance to place one representative each from Mat-Su, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula in each of the seats, said Sen. Peter Micciche, who represents the central peninsula. He said he supports the governor’s choices and that the three nominees represent a mix of interests.
“The majority of my constituents on the central peninsula as well as Alaskans statewide who put fish first support Robert (Ruffner),” Micciche said. “If you look at the makeup of the three individuals who were nominated to the board, this is designed to bring together the groups that have not felt adequately represented.”
Ruffner said the governor’s picks indicate a willingness to shake up the current custom of stacking the board with equal numbers of competing interests.
“It seems like with the list of names … he still has that idea, that that dedicated seat idea is not the right way to do this business,” said Ruffner. “Picking a candidate based on how much they’re opposed to another particular gear type isn’t the right idea. I think picking individuals with a balanced view is a better way to look at it.”
Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. Alaska Journal of Commerce reporter DJ Summers contributed to this report.