Q&A with ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell


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Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell speaks to the House Resource Committee at the Capitol in Juneau on March 18, 2011, during her confirmation hearing. Age 31 at the time, she is the second-youngest commissioner ever appointed in Alaska.

Photo/Michael Penn /Juneau Empire

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell sat down with Journal correspondent Bob Tkacz on June 4 in Juneau to talk about fish management and fish politics.

Tkacz: You are midway through your third year as commissioner of the department. What’s the state of ADF&G now as opposed to when you took over in December 2010? What are people going to remember the Cora Crome, Cora Campbell ADFG administration for?

Campbell: Hopefully years from now people are going to be able to remember my last name.

The state of things now as opposed to when I first got here, I think things are more stable and that’s good. When former Commissioner (Denby) Lloyd retried there were quite a few positions in leadership that weren’t filled. We’ve been able to fill all of those positions with good quality staff. I think that’s important for the stability of the department going forward to have a good team in place.

We’ve been able to work on many of the things that are important priorities for me. Some of the initiatives at the North Pacific (Fishery Management) Council for bycatch reduction in federal fisheries, for example. That’s been a big focus.

We’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve got more work that’s ongoing, including this week (June 5-11 council meeting) on that front. And so that’s something I’m going to continue to focus on through the rest of the term.

On the state fisheries side I think that we’re in better shape there as well. We’ve seen significant investments in fisheries research. We’ve been able to shore up our programs that had been eroded over a number of years because the governor and the legislature have been willing to commit dollars to fisheries stock assessment work and I think that’s bolstered the dept. in some areas where it was very much needed.

Tkacz: When you say ‘stability’ you’re referring to the problems of loss of professional and tech staff to federal agencies that offer better pay and benefits packages?

Campbell: We’ve seen a bit more stability in that area, yes. We’ve seen better recruitments for some of our positions but we still do have a significant salary disparity between state biologists and federal biologists here in Alaska

That’s not going away. That still exists and it still remains a challenge for us. There are significant benefits, I think people still enjoy working for the state for a number of reasons that aren’t pay-related, but that salary question is still out there.

Tkacz: Has the recruitment problem improved since you started your term?

Campbell: I think that compared to where the department was several years ago we tend to see stronger candidate pools for entry-level positions. That may have more to do with some of the economic conditions in the Lower 48 driving increased interest in jobs her in the state. But we still have difficulty filling some of the higher-level positions in the state, certainly.

That is still something we as a department still spend time working on, those workforce development questions.”

Tkacz: You came to your position from the governor’s office, which is pretty much a more political situation than any department head just because you are in the governor’s executive staff office. I think that’s a fair observation, for any department, not particularly Fish and Game.

This last legislature especially, there were a lot of complaints about, and the last few years, before your term started and after, that fish and game management has gotten more ‘politicized.’

Have you seen a change in ‘politicization’ to whatever degree you’d put it at over the last few years either from the Board (of Fisheries) or within the department, or things coming from the legislature?

Campbell: I wouldn’t say that. That is something that I have heard as long as I’ve been involved in fisheries; the question of whether fisheries management is politically driven or, I guess the alternative to that is science-based. That’s the other side of it that you hear.

It’s just a refrain that I’ve heard as long as I’ve been involved. I don’t have any reason to believe that I’m hearing more of it now than I have at any time in the past. It seems to be an ongoing theme.

Tkacz: But when we see — in the past decade more people with commercial fishing backgrounds being rejected for fish board confirmation by the legislature — the (Vince) Webster/(Tom) Kluberton votes were a pretty stark example of that. Are politics being forced on the department more than in the past?

Campbell: I certainly don’t see ... I don’t believe things are more political within the department. I believe that department staff are fairly well insulated from the politics of things that go on in the legislature.

I believe that they’re insulated from that by design and they’re allowed to do their jobs and manage fisheries, protect resources and that’s the way the department’s set up and that’s the way it’s supposed to be and why it’s been successful.

Now the question of whether politics are involved in fish board appointments and those sorts of things, certainly they are but that’s a different question.

The fish board is a political creation, right?”

Tkacz: Intentionally or unfortunately?

Campbell: The fish board members are appointed by the governor. They’re confirmed by the legislature. They are there to allocate resources between competing user groups. That’s a very different mission than what the mission of the department is and I think to suggest that somehow could or would ever be completely apolitical, I don’t see that.

Tkacz: In the House floor debate before the Vince Webster vote, several House members said they were sending a message to you. I think they said you specifically, the commissioner and the department. What message did you get?

Campbell: I don’t think I should speculate on what message they were trying to send with that vote because what I will say is I don’t fully understand the reasons behind what happened behind Vince Webster’s confirmation.

I watched him serve on the fish board. He was a good, hard-working member of that board who, I believe, did his best to serve in what I know is a very difficult position.

I don’t believe I understand the reasons for what happened behind that confirmation vote and I’m not going to sit here and say I understand what’s behind it or attempt to speak for legislators and what their reasons might have been for why they cast their votes.

Tkacz: So how did you take those comments that they were sending a message to you?

Campbell: There are stakeholders and users out there who are unhappy with the fishing opportunity they have and when they’re unhappy you see that reflected in their elected representatives.

That’s what I thought I was seeing in those comments, elected representative reflecting what they’re hearing from their constituencies about the fishing opportunity that they currently have and that’s how I took that.

I think that that is a legitimate point of view. There certainly are areas of the state right now where ... the decline in chinook is significant.

There have been very significant restrictions on people’s opportunity to harvest, whether it’s for subsistence or sport or commercial or personal use.

Any time that that happens and we’re forced to place those types of restrictions on people you get that type of discontentment and it does bubble up from the users to their representatives.

That’s how I took that, I took that, as a reflection of some of the unhappiness that’s out there right now among fishermen with the status of chinook stocks in the state.”

Tkacz: How is ADF&G staff insulated from politics? We don’t have a real strong civil service system. I know they get calls all the time at management offices all over the state when situations happen like you just described. Is it just a matter of you and division heads saying, ‘talk to me, not my staff?’

Campbell: It is part of our job as leadership to be that buffer between our jobs and the politics of the situation.

That’s part of our job and that’s part of the reason we’re here, but they aren’t insulated and they are not intended to be insulated from the local users. They do take those phone calls. Their phones are ringing off the hook during the season. That’s the way the system’s designed. Our managers are right there in the local communities surrounded by the people that their decisions affect the most.

It’s not at all to say they’re insulated from pressure because they’re not. These people have incredibly intense, high-pressure jobs.

It’s by design that they’re out there in those local communities where they can be connected with the resource that’s there and the users that are there.

I meant more that we have a culture here in the department where there’s an understanding between staff and leadership that they have our support when they’re doing their jobs. They have our support when they’re making those decisions and it’s our job to deal with the politics that come with that, the fallout that comes with that. That’s part of why we’re here.

Tkacz: Former Commissioner Denby Lloyd instituted a policy that department employees, when they are participating in conferences and things have to only give the department’s position on different issues. It came up in the Cook Inlet beluga debate. You’ve continued that policy.

That seems like a political rule of sorts. If I’m a department biologist and my views differ from my colleagues on whatever the fisheries question is, my views may not prevail on management or department activities but why can’t I say them if I’m speaking them as mine?

Campbell: I think that there is, maybe, some misunderstanding about that policy and what it means. Certainly our staff have the ability to express their personal views if they don’t align with the views of the department.

It’s just that they don’t have the ability when they’re on state time, representing the state, saying I’m here as a state biologist to confuse their views with the state’s position and that’s to protect everybody’s credibility.”

These issues are complex and they are confusing and it’s really important for the stakeholders who rely on the department to get a clear answer on what our position is and what our plan is and what we’re going to do going forward.

We don’t have a policy that tells our folks if they don’t agree with the department position they’re never allowed to say so.

Tkacz: I’m asking about, not perhaps when a biologist is on state time, but when they are invited somewhere because of their credentials as a biologist in the department, your policy says, whatever the issue is they can only give the department view.

Campbell: I don’t think that is an unreasonable request. If you’re being sent somewhere by your employer, being paid by your employer to be there that you are there representing your employer.

Tkacz: You seem to be cutting it off at ‘only’ department policy, not: here’s the department policy, here’s why we reached that position. Then they can’t say, ‘but I think maybe we’re not interpreting this exactly right.’ do I understand you correctly?

Campbell: They have the ability to express personal opinion if they want to do it, on their personal time. I’m talking about when somebody is in their official capacity and they’re representing the department.

Tkacz: If they have a legitimate, scientifically-based view that differs from the department they can’t say, ‘I differ,’ not to misrepresent the department position, but to give a different view?

Campbell: We’re generally fairly open about the scientific debate that goes into the decisions that we make and the information that goes into that and the pro and the con. We’re pretty open when we’re talking with folks about all the stuff that goes into a management decision.

Tkacz: But that makes the policy more of an anomaly. Why is that policy there? Certainly somebody has a duty to represent the department for what it is, but to say they can’t give their own informed views that happen to differ from the policy seems like a form of censorship.

Campbell: I think that what I am saying is that in most cases we do lay out for people very clearly all sides of the coin. You know, the user groups that we deal with are very educated about the matters that are important to them.

Generally when we’re sitting and speaking with people we’re having a pretty informed discussion about whatever it is.

We generally have an open conversation about all the information that went into it, the pros and the cons and why we made the decisions that we made. I don’t know that there’s any limitation on that.

What you’re talking about is something that came up in some limited instances where somebody was representing the state in an official capacity on an official body where we had an official position and that’s ... that’s what that policy was developed for is my understanding and that’s what it’s used for.

Tkacz: You’re saying the policy is in force and employees not only must give the department position but they can’t say if they disagree with that position?

Campbell: We do have a policy that says, when you’re in an official position and you’re representing the department, what you’re asking is, can somebody go and say ‘this is the department’s position and this is my position’ and the policy says: No.

If you’re there as a state employee representing the department then you give the department’s position and you don’t then confuse the issue by giving a separate personal position while you’re representing the state.

There are all your other avenues for doing that but you don’t do that while you’re representing the department.”

Tkacz: The salmon season is opening. What are you doing different this year than last year, to address all the things we’ve been talking about and the perceptions in the legislature’s fish board debate that you manage for the Kenai and not upper Cook Inlet and those kinds of complaints? What are you making people understand you’re doing things the way they’re supposed to be done?

Campbell: We’ve had some additional outreach efforts going into this season because there have been some changes and so we’re trying to do our best to get that information out there and to explain to people the science that’s behind it and how it’s going to affect management and just trying to get as much good information out there as possible while it’s still preseason and people have a chance to think about it and absorb it before we get into the heat of the moment.

It’s been kind of an interesting spring, a very late spring in much of the state. That is going to be potentially affecting run timing for early runs.

Tkacz: That was part of the problem last year, runs were later than expected. Have you made changes to address those kinds of things?

Campbell: We have taken a look at some additional information about correlations between early runs and late runs so that we can educate ourselves as we go through the season about how run timing is shaping up and correlations between environmental factors and run timing so, as much as possible, trying to get as many variables from that equation on the table so that we know as much as we can about the run; especially in a year like this one where it appears that run timing is going to be delayed for a number of runs.”

Tkacz: Have you changed when you’re going to be doing things?

Campbell: The reference points are generally the same. Generally we try to look at a run when we’re around the quarter point and the mid point. Those are when we try to stop and assess where we are.”

Tkacz: The most common complaint I heard in the legislative session about the department when during the planning for chinook remediation work was that the department was planning to do only enumeration work; weirs or surveys but some kind of counting salmon.

I’m sure you heard this: several lawmakers asked why you were not suggesting any enhancement projects. Why not?

Campbell: We didn’t end up suggesting any of those?

Tkacz: To my knowledge you’re not doing any enhancement with the $10 million chinook appropriation.

Campbell: The $10 million was specifically focused on research. That’s what that was. We also had a separate publication that looked at potential opportunities for chinook enhancement and stocking. Many of the private nonprofit hatcheries were co-authors on that publication.

We sat down and looked at what are some of the issues that you would confront if you were going to launch into chinook enhancement. (We) looked at capacity in our sport fish hatcheries, sort of everything was on the table when it came to chinook and put a number of ideas forward about where you might best start and get some kind of timely benefit back, right? And some return on your investment.

The legislature ended up putting $2 million into enhancement and stocking in the Upper Cook Inlet. And there was some amount, I want to say $200,000, for taking a look at some enhancement work in AYK (Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim).

Tkacz: Those ideas didn’t really come from you. I don’t believe that $2 million was suggested from your department. I wasn’t aware of the other $200,000. Did the department suggest those things?

I read that report with the hatchery operators. It didn’t come to a conclusion. It listed possible projects but it didn’t make any recommendations if I remember correctly. I don’t recall any proposals for enhancement project where ADFG said ‘give us the money to do this.’ Was I wrong?

Campbell: You’re not wrong. We’re talking about things from two different directions. We put together, in concert with the PNPs, a whole kind of menu of potential things you could do if you were interested in chinook enhancement.

The legislature picked that up and put some money toward enhancement in a couple of different regions.

Tkacz: Why was the $10 million only for chinook research?

Campbell: Just because the projects were separate efforts on separate timelines. When we had the symposium in Anchorage in October (2012), part of that was dedicated to enhancement. At that point the research plan really went on one track to be written and completed.

The separate question of where are the potential opportunities if you wanted to pursue enhancement was being done with, I guess I would say a broader group of folks.

We reached out pretty broadly to get that enhancement expertise. The reports were just on separate tracks. The research initiative was just a separate initiative, a separate track and it was finished more rapidly.

It was done in time to be wrapped into the governor’s budget proposal. The enhancement one didn’t come together until, I want to say maybe January.

There was a time lag there of several months.

Tkacz: Is chinook enhancement on the drawing table? Are there plans being developed?

Campbell: We have legislative funding for some in Cook Inlet and some in AYK. We have capacity to do more chinook than we’re currently doing at our Anchorage hatchery. That’s one place there could be more stocking than is currently going on in Upper Cook Inlet region. That’s one of the things that we’re going to be doing is taking that appropriation we got and implementing that.”

Tkacz: With chinook stocks in the state they are I would think a lot of people in Upper Cook Inlet would be asking ‘why aren’t we pumping out every chinook we can from every hatchery we can?’

It was said at some hearings it would be a pretty dumb idea to start enhancing streams that are full of pike, but why isn’t more chinook enhancement going on right now?

Campbell: Again, I feel like we’re talking past each other a little bit. What I just said was we have the funding to ramp up some production at our Anchorage hatchery where we have the capacity to do more chinook than we’re doing now and that’s a potential source of chinook for that Upper Cook Inlet area.

Tkacz: So you are doing more enhancment?

Campbell: “Yeah. The guys are working on plans for the $2 million legislative appropriation, an implementation plan to go with that.”

Tkacz: How’s the relationship between Fish and Game and Department of Natural Resources. It seems like they are the senior partner on development issues. DNR always seems to have the final decision. How much do they defer to Fish & Game positions when there is disagreement?

Campbell: I don’t see it that way at all. I think that that’s actually something that tends to get lost in the conversation. People are very familiar with DNR as a permitting agency and maybe not as familiar, or it’s not at the forefront as much that Fish & Game has separate permitting authority for projects that involve streams and water bodies.

We have our own permitting authority. I don’t see it as that kind of subordinate relationship or a place where we need to hope they take our concerns into account.

When we look at these development projects that are out there often DNR has a coordinating role. I think people just need to realize Fish & Game has separate permitting authority.

Tkacz: What’s your future plan? If Gov. Parnell gets a second term are you willing and anxious to stay on?

Campbell: It’s too early to talk about. Let’s save that for another time.

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