Opinion

Expanding a broken system

Now that Gov. Bill Walker has done an end-run around the legislative branch to expand Medicaid, it’s worth a look at how growing the program is going in other states. Here’s a roundup of Associated Press headlines from the last week: “Surge in Medicaid enrollment will squeeze Michigan budget” “Maryland Medicaid expansion much higher than forecast” “New Hampshire among states with surging Medicaid enrollment” “ND Medicaid expansion costs higher than previously forecast” “California’s Medicaid enrollment surpasses projections” “In Illinois, Medicaid expansion sign-ups double predictions” “New Mexico among states where Medicaid enrollment surges” “Nevada expects to spend more on Medicaid than planned” “Oregon underestimated Medicaid expansion price tag” As part of a special report, the AP found that more than a dozen states — nearly half of the 30 who have expanded Medicaid — have seen enrollment and costs swell beyond their original projections. To be sure, the idea of insuring those of lesser means is a noble one. The hard question that hasn’t been answered is how the state is going to pay for it. To hear Walker tell it, there is no downside. The experience of other states so far tells a different story. For a state facing billions in deficits that stand to erase our savings account within the next few fiscal years, it’s a heck of a coin flip to grow the largest cost in the budget without any reform outside of hiring a consultant or any spending offsets such as a provider tax as in Utah’s current Medicaid expansion proposal. Walker recently vetoed $200 million in oil exploration tax credits, capping this year’s expenditures at $500 million, declaring the current system “unsustainable” and vowing to start a discussion about reforming the program. The state Medicaid program — to say nothing of the total U.S. population on Medicaid that now encompasses 1 in 5 Americans, or about 70 million people, at a cost of some $450 billion per year — is the very definition of unsustainable. Just this year, Walker’s own budget proposal included a $20 million cut in Medicaid spending for existing enrollees; the Legislature added another $30 million in cuts. Those cuts generated a corresponding loss of federal matching funds for a total reduction of $100 million. In short, the state is already cutting a program that Walker has now expanded. Those cuts led the state to eliminate inflation-adjusted increases in Medicaid reimbursements to providers who have already been hammered by the malfunctioning payment system administered by Xerox. There is also an existing enrollment backlog of people eligible under the old criteria who will not be 100 percent paid for by the federal government. Well aware of the existing criticism about adding people to a broken payment system, Walker and his Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson said Xerox is making improvements and now paying about 90 percent of claims correctly. Nine out of 10 may sound good, but in fact it’s pretty terrible for a system that pays out $1.5 billion per year. According an affidavit detailing the state’s complaint against Xerox filed by Director of Health Care Services Margaret Brodie in February, the error rate under the legacy Medicaid payment system was 0.47 percent in 2008 compared to a national average of 2.62 percent. In February, Brodie wrote that the state estimate for the Xerox error rate was somewhere between 6 percent and 12.4 percent. If the top end of the error rate was 12.4 percent, getting it to less than 10 is a somewhat marginal improvement at best. This matters because the state has to reimburse the federal government for erroneous Medicaid payments. Take 10 percent of $1.5 billion and we’re not talking chump change here. One thing in particular that stood out at Walker’s pep rally July 16 was the appearance of the Department of Corrections commissioner touting the savings to the system from Medicaid expansion. According to the University of Alaska Anchorage, the state prison population grew by 30 percent from 2004 to 2013 and now stands at more than 5,000 people. That’s compared to the state’s population growth of about 12 percent in the same time. As of 2013, only a tiny fraction of those under correctional supervision — just 295, or less than 6 percent — were on some form of electronic monitoring. Reducing the prison population and reforming sentencing to reduce recidivism and get more people out of the system and into the workforce would be a far better path than simply finding someone else to foot the bill. Frankly, this aspect of expansion is the most troubling in that it exemplifies the fundamental failure to choose reforms instead of more federal dollars. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

An about face on exploration tax credits

Can you guess who said this? “We need to incentivize. We need to do on the North Slope what we did in Cook Inlet. We incentivized specifically for more companies to come in on the front end and created the credit program. “I worry about heavy oil. I worry that the biggest known resource on the North Slope is heavy oil. We have to incentivize that. I want to see 50 or 60 companies on the North Slope, as they do in Norway. “They have a much higher tax structure in Norway but they have 50 or 60 companies because they help on the front end, on the exploration credits. We need to level the playing field so smaller companies can come to Alaska. It’s very expensive to do business on the North Slope. “We’re fortunate to have the large companies we do have, but we need to look for ways we can reduce the costs so it’s more economic for the smaller companies to come to Alaska, create jobs, create opportunity and drill for oil. We need more wells drilled outside the legacy fields to get more oil for the pipe.” Followers of Alaska politics will recognize the reference to the idyllic oil regime of Norway is a giveaway that the speaker is Gov. Bill Walker, who is always pining for the fjords when it comes to measuring our tax policy against other resource states. Walker made those comments in one of the last debates against former Gov. Sean Parnell hosted by the Anchorage Rotary last Oct. 28. The answer was in response to a specific question asked of Walker about what he would do to increase production in the face of falling oil prices that at the time were $82 per barrel for North Slope crude and have since declined to less than $60. While the price picture has gotten uglier, the state budget situation was clear at the time with several years of multi-billion dollar deficits facing the next governor. In this issue we carry Walker’s defense of his $200 million veto of the exploration tax credit appropriation to cap this fiscal year’s spending on the program at $500 million. Walker asserts his move — which came with no warning to explorers who have earned the credits and made investment decisions based on them — is in response to Alaska’s “new” fiscal reality. Either Walker hasn’t been paying attention — which we know isn’t the case — or he’s hoping the public hasn’t. There’s nothing about Alaska’s fiscal situation that wasn’t known last October when he made his comments to the Rotary. Or when Walker submitted his budget to the Legislature in January. Or when Democrats were pitching this exact move in May while the first and second special legislative sessions were ongoing. Once again, Walker is winging it and in this instance his mouth is writing postdated checks that can’t be cashed. As he concedes in his column, the veto does nothing to change Alaska’s “new” fiscal picture, it simply kicks a $200 million can down the road one fiscal year. The about face on exploration tax credits that incentivize production is particularly ironic given Walker’s opposition to Senate Bill 21, passed in 2013 and upheld by voter referendum in 2014, which repealed the far more generous tax credits under the previous system known as ACES. Under ACES, which had a 20 percent capital expense credit, the state would have been on the hook to ExxonMobil for $800 million in credits based on the estimated $4-billion cost of the Point Thomson project set to begin production in 2016. That’s leaving out the fact the state took in more revenue under SB 21 than it would have under ACES at these depressed prices. If Walker had his way on SB 21, the state budget situation would be worse than it is today. Now that he has gotten his way with his veto pen, next year’s budget situation is worsened by his deferral of $200 million in tax credit payments that will have to be paid sooner or later. In exchange for these non-existent savings and weakening industry confidence in the state’s word, Walker gets to start another “discussion.” What a deal. Myopic doesn’t begin to describe it. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Delaying tax credit payments reflects new fiscal reality

July marks the beginning of fiscal year 2016: a chance for a new beginning and a fresh start for addressing Alaska’s economic future. On June 29, I signed into law the budget bills passed by the Legislature. For fiscal year 2016, we will spend $1 billion less than we spent last year. This is a 19 percent overall reduction with an average 13.5 percent cut to executive branch agencies, and cuts of over 30 percent in the Department of Commerce and the governor’s office. Even with these reductions, we still have to draw $2.7 billion from savings to make up for state revenue losses caused by low oil prices. Writing a budget to meet our changing circumstances required a team effort. The budget I introduced to the Legislature in January reduced spending by approximately 8 percent. It included some painful cuts to education, along with other reductions across state government. As oil prices continued to drop, the Legislature wrestled with how to address falling revenues. In the end, they reduced the budget I submitted by an additional $250 million. We’ll be seeing still more cuts as my administration works to find $30 million to fund the contractually negotiated cost of living allowance increase for state workers. Alaskans are starting to feel the effects of these spending cuts. From Southeast communities that will see reduced ferry service this winter to reduced firefighting and search and rescue capacity in the Interior. You, a family member, or a neighbor may have been laid off recently. Public services are being cut back statewide. We’ve even had to reduce the number of state troopers. This is Alaska’s new reality. I was aware of this new reality when I made the decision to limit a $700 million appropriation to repurchase oil company tax credits to $500 million. Though the $200 million veto only defers our obligations, and does not change the state’s bottom line, it was clear to me that something needed to be done to ensure this issue is part of our discussion about Alaska’s fiscal situation. Under Alaska’s oil and gas production tax system, an oil and gas company may receive a credit for a portion of each dollar they spend exploring for or developing our oil and gas resources. The credit is used to reduce the company’s production tax liability to the state. The idea is that a company will have more of an incentive to invest in the state if their investments will result in a lower tax obligation. For small producers and explorers, the benefit from tax credits is limited because they do not produce enough to have a tax liability against which to apply the credit. To address this problem, the state established a program to repurchase credits issued to companies with little to no oil and gas production. Since 2007, the state has repurchased approximately $3 billion worth of tax credits with the amount of credits increasing rapidly over the past several years. Last year, we paid out $625 million to repurchase credits from new explorers and producers, with around $700 million expected to be applied for this year. The bulk of the repurchased credits are for operating losses with less than 20 percent going toward exploration. Money for the repurchase of credits comes from an oil and gas tax credit fund. A formula establishes how much money is appropriated to the fund each year. This year, that amount would be $91 million, far less than the $700 million estimated to be needed as well as the $500 million still in the budget. I reduced the amount to $500 million because that is sufficient to pay all of the tax credit applications currently in process. As in past years, the Legislature opted to appropriate an open-ended amount that would cover all repurchase requests. This open-ended purchase of oil and gas company tax credits was on a path to becoming the largest expenditure in future state budgets. If the projections hold and companies earn credits in excess of $500 million, the companies with pending credits will be the first ones reimbursed at the beginning of fiscal year 2017. Alternatively, some of those companies may choose to sell their credits to other companies with a tax liability. There are other tax credits under the current oil and gas production tax system that lower taxpayers’ obligations. Combined with the repurchase program, we anticipate credits to total nearly $1.1 billion this year. Unlike most other countries’ oil tax systems, Alaska does not have a pre-approval process or criteria for a company to take advantage of the tax credit incentive programs. With our new fiscal reality, we can no longer afford these extremely generous incentives. Something has to change. In recent discussions with oil and gas exploration company representatives in Alaska prior to making my decision on the reduction, I was pleased to find them respectful of the gravity of Alaska’s fiscal situation and the difficult spending reductions we are experiencing. I am committed to and have been meeting with each company individually to discuss their exploration plans for the coming year and to work together towards a mutually beneficial solution to the significant cost of the repurchase program. It is important to note that the affected oil companies are not alone in experiencing the impacts of our declining revenues. Every Alaskan is affected in one way or another. For a healthy economy, we must continue the conversation we started in Fairbanks last month. While my administration will continue to make budget reductions by looking for efficiencies and opportunities to streamline services, we must also talk about diversifying our revenue. We cannot hope and wait for oil prices to go back up. It is time we all come to the table to discuss our way forward financially in this great state. Please join us in this journey as together we maximize Alaska’s potential. Bill Walker is the governor of Alaska.

Alaska National Guard committed to necessary reforms

On June 15, the Department of Law released retired Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins’ independent investigation of the Alaska National Guard to the public. Like many Alaskans, I greet its release with a sense of anger and frustration that over several years some members of the Guard mistreated people and misused public funds. Also like many Alaskans, I am relieved the report contains no new examples of improper behavior. As the Adjutant General of the Alaska National Guard, it’s up to me, my leadership team, and all the members of the Alaska Army and Air National Guard to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Moving forward, we will be the force Alaskans want us to be, executing critical federal missions, ready to deploy abroad to defend our nation, and well-trained to respond to emergencies here at home. Through this past legislative session we made important progress toward updating an Alaska Code of Military Justice that gives commanders the tools to maintain a disciplined military force. We owe thanks to Representatives Gabrielle LeDoux and Chris Tuck in particular for their help so far, and look forward to passage of legislation next year that will enable the regulations and processes to keep our house in order. We also have installed the first Provost Marshal of the Alaska National Guard, Major Brian Fuchs, who is on military leave from the Anchorage Police Department. His job is not to investigate crime but to ensure criminal activity within the Guard isn’t hidden behind the cloth of uniform or the armory door. Instead, it will be handled by the appropriate Alaska law enforcement agency. On Monday (June 15) Gov. Bill Walker personally gave Major Fuchs his special commission from the state to further this seamless communication.  These are important practical steps, but the real transformation will happen operationally. I commit to you that we will rely on a few basic principals in everything we do. Using the core values of professionalism, commitment and teamwork, we will: • Adhere to doctrine. Every action we take will be grounded in law, regulation and policy. If it’s not, we won’t do it. • Employ sound and transparent processes for everything we do. Guardsmen and women will know why they are doing something and can expect the outcome to be consistent and appropriate. • Focus on our customers, the people of Alaska. Alaskans will know our actions are moral, legal, and ethical. My first few months on the job have confirmed my faith in the character of the men and women of the Alaska National Guard. When they see leadership live these values and commit to these principles for doing business, they will respond. While it only takes a few bad actors to tarnish the reputation of a large agency, making the Alaska National Guard whole again will be the work of many, not just a few. Real transformation is possible even in large organizations such as the Alaska National Guard, but it takes commitment and effort. We can do it; I have seen firsthand the early results of the reforms put in place last fall, and additional positive changes have been made since then. With the findings from Judge Collins’ report in hand, Governor Walker’s unqualified and continuing support, and the leadership team in place today, we will move beyond these serious problems. While Judge Collins’ report covers a period of time prior to my appointment, Alaskans deserve an apology for what was allowed to happen. On behalf of the Guard, let me apologize to a number of individuals, and Alaskans more broadly, for this organization’s mishandling of complaints about serious offenses and for betraying the confidence of people who sought help and justice. While going forward the Guard will care for those individuals, we must continue to take serious and broad sweeping steps to be a better force for Alaska. We were wrong, we can do better, and we’re on the path to making things right. The history of the Alaska National Guard is not that long, but it is unique and noteworthy. With its roots in the men of the Alaska Territorial Guard who provided practical, Alaskan “know how” to defend our nation’s coastline in World War II, the Alaska National Guard has a host of skills and talents to offer our nation and state. As we prepare ourselves to face the challenges ahead, we will build on our history and engagement with all Alaska communities, increase our emergency management capacity, and prepare for a changing Arctic. I commit to you that the Alaska National Guard will once again be a source of pride for Alaskans. Brigadier General (AK) Laurie Hummel is the Adjutant General of the Alaska National Guard and the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. A third generation soldier and 30 year veteran of the U.S. Army, she was formerly a military intelligence officer.

Walker might have two more fish seats to fill

For those who follow fish politics, Gov. Bill Walker has had a rough time filling a single seat on the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Now he may have to start thinking about new names for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. First, he told previous Board of Fisheries Chair Karl Johnstone in January that he would not be reappointed after his term ends this June 30; Johnstone resigned in response. Walker then made a snap decision to replace Johnstone with Roland Maw, who Johnstone and all his fellow board members had denied an interview for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner job. Maw withdrew Feb. 20 when it was about to come to light that he was under criminal investigation in Montana for illegally obtaining resident hunting and fishing privileges in that state while receiving the same in Alaska. That led Walker to nominate Soldota conservationist Robert Ruffner to replace Maw, and Ruffner was narrowly defeated in the Legislature 30-29 after sportfishing groups rallied against him based on his support from the commercial fishing industry. As if it couldn’t get more bizarre, Walker’s Boards and Commissions Director Karen Gillis resigned in protest May 13 when she was told the governor intended to nominate Roberta “Bobbi” Quintavell to replace Ruffner. Rumors of Quintavell’s selection began to spread before the official announcement, and commercial fishing groups protested to the governor’s office based on her being the preferred choice of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association that led the fight to sink Ruffner’s nomination. Walker changed his mind again, apparently, and picked outgoing Board of Game member Robert “Bob” Mumford on May 18. Now, as this issue of the Journal goes to press, the North Pacific council that governs Alaska’s federal fisheries 3 to 200 miles offshore is meeting in Sitka with more than half the agenda dedicated to a single action: cutting the amount of halibut bycatch allowed in the Bering Sea groundfish fisheries that include pollock, Pacific cod and flatfish. However, the council will take its final action without two members from Alaska who are being recused based on their interests in those same Bering Sea fisheries. Among the 11 members, this decision by the heads of the Department of Commerce legal division removes Alaska’s majority voting block on the council and essentially makes the federal designated rep from National Marine Fisheries Service the swing vote on any decision. By law, the appointees to the council must be drawn from industry stakeholders, putting them under a different set of conflict of interest guidelines than other federal bodies. However, no member may have greater than a 10 percent stake in the fisheries affected by his or her vote. This brings us to the Alaska members being recused: Simon Kinneen of the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. and David Long of Glacier Fish Co. Commerce Department attorneys determined that NSEDC, which is the Community Development Quota group for the area, and its subsidiaries harvest more 13 percent of the nearly 2 million metric tons of fish allocated in the Bering Sea. Glacier Fish Co. is tied to NSEDC, and Long was also recused from voting based on a greater than 10 percent interest in the fisheries. On the one hand, the fact that NSEDC and its subsidiaries alone now harvest more than 10 percent of Bering Sea fish is a success for the CDQ program that began in 1992 and allocates 10 percent of the total Bering Sea harvest among 65 Western Alaska villages divided among six CDQ groups. On the other, it means that NSEDC has grown too big to have an employee on the council. Former Trident Seafoods executive Dave Benson tried to get around the 10 percent threshold in 2008 first by changing jobs to work for a Trident subsidiary, which led him to being recused from a vote in 2009; he subsequently formed a consulting company that allowed him to avoid the 10 percent rule and continue voting on Bering Sea issues. New financial disclosure rules and greater attention to the clients of consultants who work for their former employers means the Benson loophole is effectively closed, as it should be. Kinneen was also recused from a crucial vote in April related to lowering chinook salmon bycatch limits for the pollock fleet in the Bering Sea, based on NSEDC’s stakes in that fishery. Taken to a logical conclusion, if Kinneen and Long can’t vote on halibut bycatch based on the 10 percent threshold, they shouldn’t even be allowed to vote on the annual Bering Sea harvest quotas. If a council member from Alaska cannot vote on monumental issues such as salmon and halibut bycatch, they must step down to give the state its full voice on the federal level on issues of grave importance to our state. Walker has enough headaches right now and doesn’t need another one, but this is the job he asked for. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Dramatic cut in halibut bycatch will cost Alaskan jobs

I have been an Alaskan since 1996. I live and work in Dutch Harbor and have built a labor and equipment company providing services to the Amendment 80 vessels. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting in June to decide whether to adjust the Amendment 80 fleet’s allowable halibut bycatch. The council’s decision is likely to cost Alaskan jobs. We have been providing longshore services either directly or indirectly since 1998. Our company has grown from a few hard working Alaskans to a little over 120 employees. We provide these services in Dutch Harbor and Adak. I can say without any reservation that any dramatic cut in the Amendment 80 vessels ability to deliver fish to Dutch Harbor will have a devastating impact on our labor force and their families. These employees depend on the steady work of the Amendment 80 fleet that fish year round providing steady income that helps keep the employees working, unlike many of the other fisheries that are very seasonal and as a result make it difficult to keep a year round qualified labor force. In 2014 Pacific Stevedoring received $4,414,870 in stevedore revenue from Amendment 80 vessels. Even modest cuts to this revenue will potentially cost up to a dozen jobs. But dramatic cuts could very well eliminate all the jobs. Employees cannot maintain residency and employment in Dutch Harbor if standing by for large parts of the year waiting for work. Equally important is the secondary effects on the rest of the fishing industry and community as a whole. We all watched many jobs disappear in Dutch Harbor as the rationalization of the many fisheries reduced the demand for third-party vendors. The Amendment 80 vessels support a large part of the Dutch Harbor community and reductions in their deliveries will have far reaching effects. From possible elimination of the shipping companies that support them, which will reduce fish companies options to get product out driving up the cost of shipping, to significant cuts in city tax revenue, forcing the city to raise taxes on the other sectors to make up the difference and numerous other effects in between. I can say without hesitation if the Amendment 80 vessels were to see dramatic cuts in deliveries resulting from halibut by-catch cuts, Pacific Stevedoring will have to eliminate approximately 50 good-paying jobs while the City of Unalaska will endure many other hardships as well. Andrew Murphy is CEO of Pacific Stevedoring Inc.

Shell, Foss are right to stand up to Seattle socialists

We’re all going to die. The human race will go extinct. This will destroy us. That’s just a smattering of the hysterical Chicken Littling that fell on the ears of the Seattle Port Commission on May 12 as a parade of Arctic drilling opponents and avowed socialists urged the members to revoke the port’s contract with Foss Maritime and thereby prohibit Shell from parking the Polar Pioneer drill rig at Terminal 5 before it is towed to the Chukchi Sea this summer. Foss is appealing an interpretation by the Seattle Department of Planning and Development that declared the mooring of the Polar Pioneer and two associated tugs at Terminal 5 did not meet the criteria of a cargo use. The Port Commission voted to join Foss’ appeal, but also voted to urge the company not to move the Polar Pioneer from Port Angeles to Terminal 5 until the legal wrangling is resolved. To their credit, Shell and Foss have told the City of Seattle and the port that they will proceed with moving the rig and performing the scheduled work as planned. It’s a refreshing act of political will being shown by Shell and Foss in the face of a shrieking horde of opposition led by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray that is pursuing every means both legal and illegal to disrupt Shell’s efforts to conduct oil exploration in the Arctic. Timing is everything, and as this edition of the Journal goes to press an amazing flotilla of some 29 vessels is converging on the Pacific Northwest from around the globe in a remarkable feat of logistics years in the making. Murray, the “kayaktavists,” the “Shell no” socialists, Raging Grannies and the lawless bunch at Greenpeace that were recently ordered by a federal judge to stay away from Shell’s vessels all know that if they can slow down any part of Shell’s plans they can disrupt the entire summer exploration plan. Murray and the planning department are attempting to find a legal ground to stop Shell’s plans, but their effort is rendered incredible when the mayor has linked the legality of the port permit with his political views on Arctic drilling. Political grandstanding is not a legal strategy, and Shell and Foss at least for now won’t be bullied into going along with it. As the mayor’s office threatens possible fines, hopefully the legal teams at Shell and Foss are readying a case to enjoin the City of Seattle from enforcing its nakedly biased interpretation of the port’s land use permit. Calling the mayor’s bluff and transporting the Polar Pioneer to Terminal 5 is a bold move, but it is also the only choice for two companies who are being backed into a corner by a bunch of self-righteous zealots. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Bering Sea halibut bycatch cuts critical for conservation

This time of year I split my days between my computer and the harbor, trying not to bring too much of the bait smell back to the office with me. Herring oil or not, it’s been my great fortune to find work in my hometown that allows me to always be talking about, writing about or looking for fish. I’ll be on the grounds this time next week, hauling in Pacific halibut, finding rhythm again for another season on the water. I’ll also be considering what’s coming up after I return to homeport — the June convening of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Sitka. There the Council will take final action on the proposed reduction of halibut bycatch caps in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, or BSAI, region. This decision point comes after a decade of steady stock decline, during which time the directed halibut fishery quota in the BSAI has dropped by 63 percent. Halibut fishermen in the hardest hit region — the Central Bering Sea — are facing closure if meaningful change doesn’t come out of the June meeting. Their crisis point has arrived. In the meantime, halibut bycatch caps in the BSAI stand the same as they were set during peak abundance decades ago. In 2014, BSAI groundfish fisheries caught and discarded seven times more halibut (number of fish) than the directed fishery landed. In a state that celebrates its commitment to sustainable fisheries, we have created through inaction an epic inequity in the Bering Sea, allowing a management system that prioritizes bycatch over directed fisheries. But it’s more than that. There are some that would tell you that a reduction of bycatch in favor of returning quota to the directed fishery is solely an allocation decision. While in some ways it is — under well-defined legal and ethical standards that say one fishery should not carry on unchanged at the cost of another collapsing — it is also a serious conservation issue.  At an average weight of just under 5 pounds, the vast majority of the 1 million halibut caught as bycatch in the BSAI last year were juvenile fish. Tagging studies conducted by the International Pacific Halibut Commission show that 70 percent to 90 percent of juvenile halibut can and do migrate out of the BSAI to all other areas of the North Pacific. So when we talk about halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea, we’re talking about high volume removals of a stock that supplies every halibut fishery from Nome to California. We’re talking about a reduction in numbers and essential genetic biodiversity. This is a conservation issue. A 5-pound halibut is well under the size that commercial halibut fishermen are allowed to keep. Regardless of the harvester, higher yield is achieved by harvesting larger fish. At the current rate and average size of bycatch, fishing pressure in the BSAI is diminishing juvenile cohorts before the stock is able to grow into collective maturity — an essential standard for sustainable fishing practices. This scenario shows us that we cannot directly compare the harvest impact of halibut bycatch and directed halibut harvest. They are harvesting from different populations, and one is removing significantly more animals from the ecosystem than the other. This is a conservation issue. Finally, the entire situation of a declining halibut stock is a conservation issue. Our regulations have simply failed to require halibut bycatch harvesters to participate in it. The Bering Sea halibut fleet has done everything but sell their boats in an effort to conserve the halibut stock. It’s time that other groups share the burden of that conservation. As someone who makes her living off the ocean, I know what I’m asking for, and it’s significant. A 50 percent cut in bycatch will mean change for the groundfish fleet in the BSAI. Not impossible change, not crippling change, but it will mean change. However, the alternative is the demise of one fishery, and the continued risk of coast-wide stock health. While I respect the voluntary reductions in bycatch the groundfish fleet has achieved, a meaningful regulatory conservation effort is long overdue. Please advocate for a meaningful reduction of halibut bycatch caps in the Bering Sea. Email comments to [email protected] The deadline to comment is 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 26. Hannah Heimbuch is a commercial halibut and salmon fisherman, and a Community Fisheries Organizer for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. She lives in Homer.

Legislature votes for factions over fish

The mantra “Fish come first” has been exposed as nothing more than a fish tale. Gov. Bill Walker’s second crack at a Board of Fisheries nominee was defeated April 19 in the Legislature by a 30-29 vote when Robert Ruffner of Soldotna became the latest trophy — though likely not the last — mounted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. Just as it did two years ago to oust board member Vince Webster by an identical 30-29 vote, KRSA engaged in a heavy-handed lobbying effort of distortions and character assassination, this time against a candidate who has devoted his professional career to conservation as the executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum. While KRSA claims “Fish come first” in its slick propaganda to mask its true purpose as a guided fishing lobbying group, Ruffner has actually lived that motto. By engaging in a campaign to smear a man who does the work KRSA claims to believe in, the group revealed itself as representing a faction first — not the fish. For an organization that downplays the linkages between its members and the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance trying to ban setnets in Cook Inlet via a ballot initiative, the guilt by association aspect of its attacks on Ruffner was particularly brazen. Because they had nothing to pin on Ruffner himself, KRSA cherry-picked the most controversial board proposals from anyone who supported Ruffner as if their own membership isn’t advocating for the most radical change in Cook Inlet by banning a gear group that has coexisted with sustainable salmon runs for more than a century. Then there was the laughable claim that Ruffner should be rejected because he doesn’t live in Anchorage. What a pile of fish guts. In its letter to legislators, KRSA argued that Ruffner would be less accessible to residents of Anchorage because he lives in Soldotna. It’s funny  they didn’t have that concern when the last board chairman spent half of every year living in Arizona more than 3,600 miles away from Anchorage and only came back to the state in the winter for board meetings. Nor should anybody believe KRSA would have made the residency argument about Anchorage had Walker nominated Joe Sportfishing Guide from Kenai for the seat. This residency argument against Ruffner — beyond the sheer hypocrisy of it given KRSA’s unequivocal past support for having a snowbird serve as chairman of the board — is ridiculous on its face. If Anchorage and Valley residents who enjoy dipnetting or angling on the Kenai River want to enjoy sustainable salmon harvests now and in the future, it is difficult to think of a better person to have on the board than someone who has dedicated his life to preserving the health of that river. Ultimately, Ruffner’s work to preserve and protect the Kenai River habitat from human impacts is what really scared KRSA. Commercial fishermen have long argued that in-river impacts must be considered to ensure sustainable salmon runs, and the last thing KRSA wanted on the board was someone who wouldn’t blithely dismiss such concerns about protecting spawning grounds and tearing up river banks with outboard motors. The KRSA and Mat-Su narrative is that commercial fishermen are to blame for anybody who strikes out with a dipnet or a pole and to hell with anyone who doesn’t toe that line no matter how many piscis pretzels they have to make out of twisting the truth. In the end, though, KRSA is just an advocacy group and the real blame lies with the legislators who bought into its cynical campaign that counts on a bipartisan group of bumblesticks to go along with it every time. Walker shouldn’t cave to the special interests or these selfish and short-sighted legislators in his next pick for the board, but who, after watching what has happened to the likes of good people like Webster and Ruffner, would subject themselves to such unfair attacks if they don’t fall into lackey lockstep with KRSA? The board process is broken, and what just happened to Ruffner is a perfect example why. Until the Legislature stops putting factions over fish it won’t be fixed anytime soon. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Short-term cuts may cause long-term damage

In what are well-intentioned efforts to do everything possible to narrow a $4-billion budget gap, the appropriators in the Alaska Legislature may end up doing more harm than good. There is simply no way to cut a way out of this deficit, which should have put the emphasis from the jump on structural reforms rather than nickel-and-dime reductions in the budget. So far, the only such attempts are the effort to reform Medicaid from its unsustainable path and an operating budget that rejects 2.5 percent pay raises for unionized state employees in the next fiscal year. Union officials may be grumbling about this, and Gov. Bill Walker expressed his concern over it to the Associated Press, but a pay freeze for state workers is hardly an unwarranted action, and is one they should still prefer over outright job cuts. Other than that, the Legislature has spent time on sideshows such as daylight savings time and resolutions to demand all federal land be transferred to the state along with budget cuts that add up to little more than a duck passing gas in the wind. The cuts won’t solve anything, but like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings they threaten to cause damaging ripple effects. Consider the proposed $11 million in cuts to the state ferry system. That amounts to to 0.27 percent of the deficit. The effect of the cut, however, could displace more than 9,000 people who have already purchased tickets for travel this summer. More than two-thirds of them are tourists, which is the third-largest industry in Alaska. Is it worth saving $11 million to cause this much disruption to ferry customers and tour operators who rely on the system? The potential for souring people on their trip to Alaska, displacing state residents who have booked travel, creating a picture of unreliability for the ferry system and sticking tour operators with the problem is hardly worth the savings. Then there is Walker’s elimination of $5 million in funding for the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative, a multi-year effort to better understand the iconic state fish upon which an eons-old subsistence lifestyle is based and whose health — or lack of it — impacts every sector of the commercial and sport fishing industries. Given the stakes of achieving sustained and strong king salmon runs, refusing to fund this vital research is not a better outcome for the state compared to the good it can accomplish. Similarly, the slashing of the funding for Alaska Public Media from $5 million to $2.5 million to zero is also pointless and will disproportionately impact rural Alaskans who don’t have as many information sources. Walker’s decision to cut $8 million in funding for the Ambler Road environmental impact statement and ordering a halt to all work on the project also achieves nothing while setting back a vital long-term effort to open up a resource-rich area that will create hundreds if not thousands of well-paying jobs and help lower the cost of living in the area. The real pineapple on this upside-down cake of ill-conceived and ineffective cuts, though, is the effort to screw around with the Interior Energy Project by stripping $45 million in previously appropriated funds for the effort. While the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority explores the possibility of sourcing gas from Cook Inlet in an attempt to achieve the goal of first gas to Fairbanks by the end of 2016, Rep. Mike Hawker of Anchorage is throwing up amendments that will ensure it won’t happen. Interior stakeholders are right to compare the expense for the IEP to the cost of tax credits totaling $700 million in the last several years to subsidize the Cook Inlet gas resurgence. That’s more than a fair point; it is a convincing argument. Interior residents don’t deserve another year without a plan to lower their energy costs and improve air quality. Times like these are why we have savings accounts. It’s also the time when we need our legislators and governor to step up to the plate and deliver. As the session nears its close, we’ve seen a lot of small ball instead of home runs. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Administration must hear from Alaskans about energy future

Much to our misfortune, the administration has once again shown how a faraway federal bureaucracy can do and will do what it wants, when it wants — with zero input from those who will be affected most. Earlier this year, the federal government made a series of controversial proclamations regarding Alaska and its surrounding Arctic region that sent political shockwaves throughout the state and the country. First, President Obama announced that he would continue to block energy production in millions of acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska’s best onshore energy prospect, then made significant areas of the U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits to energy exploration as well. Together, the decisions snatched away tens of thousands of would-be jobs and billions in expected revenue, all without first conferring with those who would be most affected by these decisions — Alaskan consumers themselves. Fortunately, Alaskans finally got a chance to speak out earlier this month at a pep-rally-like press conference hosted by Consumer Energy Alliance-Alaska which was attended by several representatives from an assortment of industry and consumer advocate groups, like the Alaska Trucking Association The turnout was extraordinary. Dozens of consumers, as well as labor and business leaders, packed the event to express their support for more offshore Alaskan energy production, some holding up signs that read “OCS YES!” We hope the administration will see, feel, and hear what we saw, heard, and felt that day, the fears and uncertainties Alaskans have about their future, their children’s future, and their grandchildren’s future thanks to an administration that continues to hurt Alaska’s bread-and-butter industry — energy. “I got two little grandsons and I’m looking at them, hoping that when they’re old enough to get into the workforce that OCS is going to be cranking along and that we’re going to be having jobs to put them to work, to earn money, to raise their families,” Alaska AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami said at the press conference. The gathering was held moments before the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management held an open house about its proposed 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil & Gas Leasing Program — a plan that is “woefully inadequate” as currently drafted, said former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Here’s why: The Alaska Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) has about 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Development of these resources would create 54,000 jobs and $193 billion in federal revenue. These resources could help get Alaska out of its multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, help power millions of American homes, and help extend the longevity of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), an energy artery for the lower 48 states that continues to face a declining throughput. “TAPS, which is operating at one-fourth capacity, is the economic lifeblood of Alaska’s economy and a critical link to the nation’s long-term energy security,” Rick Rogers, executive director of the Resource Development Council of Alaska, said. As such, Alaskans of all political affiliations continue to urge the feds to allow the safe and responsible exploration and production of the massive amounts of natural resources that pepper the Alaskan and Arctic regions, but impediments to development persist. The DOI’s leasing plan is the latest hurdle. While the proposal includes three sales off Alaska — one in the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Cook Inlet, it also restricts leasing in certain areas. Moreover, it remains uncertain if even those three lease sales would proceed in the future. This is not the plan we need to guarantee that Alaska remains a significant component of the expanding American energy equation, which has made worldwide, geopolitical headlines in recent years for its top-ranked oil and natural gas production. Instead, we need a strategy that utilizes every resource we have available to us, regardless of where it is, to guarantee greater energy self-sufficiency. Alaska, ANWR, and its encircling Arctic regions are included. There is a lot riding on sustaining and expanding Alaskan energy production – the pocketbooks of consumers, the balance sheets of businesses and governments, and the job security of millions. Now it’s up to us to preserve that economic lifeline by letting the administration know how we feel about their defective strategy. David Holt is the president of Consumer Energy Alliance and Aves Thompson is the executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association.

Rules over reality, and clouding Sunshine Week

A couple weeks ago, the House Majority offered a high-minded defense against an accusation by Gov. Bill Walker that it was working for someone other than Alaskans by trying to limit his expansion plans for a state-led gas pipeline. On March 2 in House Speaker Mike Chenault’s office, sponsors of legislation to prioritize the Alaska LNG Project over Walker’s new plan to create a competing project went one-by-one around the room emphasizing that they work for their 17,000 or so constituents in addition to all Alaskans. That respect for working for constituents came to an abrupt end just two weeks later when the same Majority caucus booted Eagle River Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold for the crime of voting against their operating budget. Reinbold believes cuts to the operating budget didn’t go far enough and said she was frustrated to see spending that was cut in subcommittees being reinserted into the final budget. The horror. In response, the caucus stripped Reinbold of key committee assignments, including as co-chair of the Joint Armed Services Committee. By punishing Reinbold for voting according to the wishes of her constituents — who include the heart of Alaska’s military population — the caucus is now also punishing them and looking petty in the process. Rules are rules, Chenault said, apparently unaware of the contradiction between what his members said about working for their constituents first on March 2 and punishing one who did just that two weeks later. In healthy budget times, perhaps some defense could be offered for a rule that demands caucus unity over personal differences, but we are hardly living in normal budget times facing $7 billion in deficits over the current and next fiscal years. It is the picture of tone deafness to put caucus rules over reality when the dispute revolves around the best way to get Alaska’s budget situation under control. While it is true that Alaska cannot cut its way out of a $3.5 billion hole this year or next, it is also true that the ever-swelling operating budget has been flagged as an issue to be addressed long before the bottom fell out of oil prices in the last eight months. Just a couple years ago, it was well-known that prices would eventually have to maintain levels of $120 per barrel or more just to balance the budget, and that was when prices were consistently hovering around the $100 mark instead of closer to $40 where they are now. The fact is, any simple, one-time cuts in the operating budget are insufficient to fix the unsustainable path we’re on. It is long past time to start figuring out ways to bend the cost curve down on the drivers of the operating budget, and perhaps Sen. Pete Kelly’s effort to reform Medicaid will be able to do that. It is surely not the time for Walker to jeopardize the state’s best hope for new revenue through commercializing North Slope gas just to fulfill his decades-old dream of being the guy who delivered a gasline to Alaskans. Nor is it the time to put a caucus rule over convictions. Hard choices must eventually be made, and kicking out a member who appears ready to make them only weakens the caucus rather than strengthening it.   Casting shadows during Sunshine Week Gov. Bill Walker ran on a platform of transparency, so an action by his communications office March 16 that came during the celebration of the Freedom of Information Act known as “Sunshine Week” was doubly ironic. Our reporter DJ Summers heard there had been a letter sent from a federal agency to Walker regarding upcoming North Pacific Fishery Management Council nominations. We asked Katie Moritz from our sister paper the Juneau Empire to stop by his office to get a copy. Moritz was told by Ty Keltner, the communications coordinator for Walker’s office, that there was a letter from the U.S. Commerce Department that had been received on Feb. 3. The only catch was that Summers would have to file a public records request if he wanted to see it. Summers dutifully filed the request March 16 at 4 p.m. We eventually got a response from Walker’s public records specialist Angela Hull that it had been received as we neared press deadline on March 18. In the meantime, however, we had already gone ahead and asked the ever-helpful Julie Speegle at the Alaska Region of National Marine Fisheries Service on March 17 if she could get us a copy from the Commerce Department. Less than a day later, Speegle had connected us with the Maryland headquarters and we had a copy of the letter signed Jan. 28 without any help from Walker’s administration. And, we’ll add, without having to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request. Turns out the letter Keltner withheld from a simple inquiry was essentially a form letter from NMFS outlining the process for nominating candidates and a deadline for when materials had to be received. A big nothingburger that contained little we didn’t already know about the nomination process. Having time to respond, search and retrieve a large amount of records is a reasonable provision in the Alaska Public Records Act. However, what the governor’s communications office pulled by withholding an innocuous letter they acknowledged existed and when it was received hardly lives up to Walker’s claimed commitment to transparency. The only thing transparent about this action is how trifling it was. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]  

GUEST COMMENTARY: Remembering Stevens in renewing namesake fisheries act

Almost 40 years ago, without regard for the conservation of our fisheries or the needs of the Alaskan people, foreign fishing fleets dominated the waters off Alaska’s shores and took anything and everything in their reach. Ask anyone familiar with the times, deck lights of foreign vessels — dozens if not more — could be seen just miles off the coast of Kodiak and other coastal communities. Recognizing the need for change, countless Alaskan fishermen came to Congress to ask for help in pushing the foreign fleets out. Sen. Ted Stevens and I knew that Alaska’s and America’s interests needed protection and we immediately began working to spearhead common sense fisheries reforms through Congress. Reforms weren’t easy, but partnerships and friendships were formed — with Representatives and Senators across state and party lines – to convince our colleagues it was the right thing to do. After years of work, the foundation of our domestic fishing fleet was born, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, or MSA. Along with the creation of the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone that pushed foreign fleets further from our shores, the MSA “Americanized” our fisheries and created wealth and certainty for our State and fishermen. Alaska is now home to the strongest, most sustainable fisheries in the world. All across the North Pacific, from Dutch Harbor to Ketchikan, our fishermen and coastal communities have thrived under the policies developed in the MSA. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska’s seafood industry now contributes nearly 80,000 jobs to our local economies; is home to 11 of the nation’s top 20 most valuable commercial fishing ports; and harvests more than 60 percent of the nation’s seafood. As Alaska’s fisheries continue to flourish, with healthy communities and jobs at sea and on shore, there ultimately comes a time when our laws — even those that are working well — must be reviewed and updated. Just as our fishermen and fisheries must adjust to new dynamic challenges, our laws must also be reviewed to keep pace with changes in our industry and ensure they are being implemented as intended by Congress. After more than two years of reviewing the MSA, I have been asked by the House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to once again put my fisheries experience to work by leading the charge on reauthorizing this important legislation. In an effort to ensure a proper balance between the biological needs of our fish stocks and the economic needs of our fishermen and coastal communities, I have introduced legislation with a number of regional cosponsors to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. H.R. 1335, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, provides a number of modest but necessary reforms, including efforts to: provide fisheries managers with increased flexibility and transparency; allow for improved data collection through the use of electronic monitoring; increase accountability for our federal agencies; and create predictability and certainty for coastal communities that depend on stable fishing. In many ways, the MSA continues to support Alaska fishermen and protect our fishery resource as envisioned. But as I’ve learned in Congress, our laws are not written in stone and we must constantly review them, listen to our constituents and make changes when necessary. As we move forward on this important legislation and take up separate efforts to address Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing by foreign vessels, I look forward to once again hearing from the countless Alaskans and Americans who helped us develop these positive reforms. While I will miss teaming up with Senator Stevens again during this process, as we did for the first time in 1976 and for the last time in 2006, I will remember him fondly as we work to update the law bearing his name.

Walker is shocked to find politics going on in Juneau

There was a lot of Louis Renault going around Juneau last week. The Casablanca police captain unforgettably pronounced himself shocked — shocked! — to find out gambling was going on in Rick Blaine’s club. Renault’s supposed ignorance of the routine business in Blaine’s club is of course belied a moment later when an employee hands him a stack of cash: “Your winnings, sir.” “Oh, thank you very much,” Renault says as he pockets the money, “now everybody out!” On March 2, Gov. Bill Walker took his turn as Renault first, proclaiming himself shocked the House leadership introduced a bill to prioritize the ongoing Alaska LNG Project over Walker’s nebulous plan announced Feb. 18 to create a competing project by upsizing the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline. A couple hours later, it was Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who declared he was shocked that the impulsive new governor would fly off the handle in the manner he did at a hastily called press conference by insulting the bill sponsors, declaring House Bill 132 unconstitutional and vowing a veto. While the House sponsors no doubt expected a reaction from Walker, whose administration has not been forthcoming with the details of his new plan, it is possible they were surprised he would dispense with any modicum of decorum by calling their bill “un-Alaskan” and asserting they were working for someone besides their constituents. In Walker’s case, the more disturbing conclusion than a feigned ignorance of politics going on in Juneau is that of a willful ignorance. Did he really think the Legislature and its leadership that spent years crafting the structure of the Alaska LNG Project was going to roll over as he blew it up? Does he not realize that anything he wants — whether it is Medicaid expansion or funding for his new gas plan — will require that he work with legislators rather than vilify them? He can line item veto, but he can’t line item appropriate. It is probably also worth noting here that the legislation creating the Alaska LNG Project passed by veto-proof majorities in both houses. In their press conference following Walker, the House members including Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, were calm yet firm in their reaction to Walker’s personal attacks and easily defended the merits of the bill they’d just introduced. Walker, in contrast, was full of emotional bluster, disjointedly jumping from metaphor to metaphor about buying cars and leasing commercial office space, grasping at hearsay from a meeting with ExxonMobil to paint the House leaders as the only ones opposed to his idea to create a competing project to AK LNG. Repeatedly pressed by reporters about why he believes it is better to align with customers who want the lowest price possible than to align with the producers who not only have the gas but want the best price possible, Walker had no good answers. Instead, he kept going back to an example of a commercial office building that requires tenants signed up to lease space to finance construction That is all well and good, but the problem with Walker’s example is that he’s trying to finance a project and line up tenants when he doesn’t own the lot where he wants to build, or, in this case, the gas. Walker needs the suppliers of the gas — aka the big three producers — to be on board with any plan or he has nothing to market to customers. There is no way he can attempt to market 2 billion cubic feet of gas per day of which the state currently has no access. Going back to his real estate example, given that he doesn’t own the lot where he wants to build, Walker’s plan appears to be to seize it through eminent domain. If he really intends to invoke the “duty to produce” concept, North Slope gas will be tied up in court for decades. That would be a moot outcome, though, as the state will go bankrupt long before such a case is resolved. What is becoming clear is that Walker did not level with the Alaska voters during his campaign when he said he would continue the Alaska LNG Project as conceived and in fact always intended to chart his own course even if his haphazard style of governance alienates legislators and throws uncertainty at markets that were finally starting to take a North Slope gas project seriously. Not even Captain Renault could fake shock at this outcome. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AJOC EDITORIAL: Board needed a shakeup, but aftershocks are coming

Alaska had a record number of earthquakes in 2014, but this year could set a new one if Gov. Bill Walker keeps it up. After openly picking a fight with the Legislature and the supporters of the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline project by dismissing three Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board members, Walker has stepped on another fault line: Cook Inlet fisheries. While Alaskans are generally united on fisheries issues such as trawl bycatch or the Pebble mine, nothing sets state residents against each other with greater bitterness than the perennial fights among sport and commercial salmon users in Cook Inlet. Whether it is Kenai guides against East Side setnetters or Mat-Su Valley anglers and legislators against drift boats or “Joe Fisherman” against both sport guides and commercial users, the term “fish wars” coined to describe Cook Inlet management fights is not much of an overstatement. The long history of Cook Inlet controversies led to Walker’s latest dramatic move after the Board of Fisheries chaired by Karl Johnstone unanimously refused to deem United Cook Inlet Drift Association Executive Director Roland Maw qualified to interview for the job of Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner. While there can be no doubt that Maw has not only advocated for his membership but also sharply criticized board actions, there can also be no doubt that he was qualified to be interviewed for the job. The Board of Fisheries made a mockery of a public process and the law when it refused, without comment, to interview him and put on the record what are the well-known concerns about placing an advocate such as Maw — or any advocate for that matter — into the commissioner post. Not only did Walker quickly inform Johnstone that he wouldn’t be nominated for a third term on the board, but when Johnstone resigned Walker tapped Maw to replace him. The move is stunning, and not just for the Hollywood plot twist. Maw is a far stronger commercial fishing advocate than any of the other members of the board who come from the industry, and replacing Johnstone with Maw reverses the balance of power on the seven-member board. The sport fish majority led by Johnstone instituted radical changes to Cook Inlet fisheries at its 2011 and 2014 meetings. After the 2011 meeting, Johnstone said that the allocative decisions made in some cases were worth “millions of dollars.” UCIDA has twice filed lawsuits in federal court challenging Alaska management of Cook Inlet salmon, the most recent in 2013 after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council formally ceded that control to the state in 2012. Relations are also strained between UCIDA and the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission because the Northern District sport users successfully pushed for new restrictions on drifters at the 2014 board meeting. Since then, the group has used state grant money to hire a consultant that commercial fishermen allege is biased against them. That sparked the most recent volley between the two user groups as UCIDA refused to attend a January workshop of the Mat-Su Commission. Walker doesn’t have to look far into the recent past to see how nasty the Cook Inlet fish wars can be over board nominations and he should expect one over Maw given the makeup of the board and that his term will include the next Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2017. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, mounted a vicious lobbying campaign in 2013 against former member Vince Webster, a setnetter from Bristol Bay, and succeeded in defeating his nomination by a 30-29 vote — the only one of then-Gov. Sean Parnell’s 88 nominations who was not confirmed. That was when Webster wasn’t even a member of the majority, having lost the chairmanship to Johnstone in 2011. Think of what KRSA will do at the prospect of Maw shepherding the votes on the Board of Fisheries. The board needed a shakeup to be sure, but Walker should also be prepared for the aftershocks that are coming.

The new Congress brings new hope, new clout for Alaska

For the first time in eight years, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. While our eight-vote majority in the Senate is not enough to unilaterally overcome filibusters or presidential vetoes, it is enough to restore regular order and actual debate on important issues. The changes we are bringing to the Senate — including longer work weeks and an open amendment process — will create opportunities for bipartisan coalitions to promote policies that strengthen Alaska and our nation. In this new Senate, Alaska will hold the gavels of both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. The combination of these powerful positions provides a singular opportunity for us to pursue policies that protect and strengthen Alaska’s rightful role as an American energy powerhouse. These new positions are critical for creating a bright future for our families. We now hold the gavels of the panels with both policy and spending authority over the federal agencies that control more than 60 percent of the public lands in our state. I will continue to be a tireless advocate for Alaskans — on a life-saving road for King Cove, increased access to our federal lands, offshore oil production, monetizing our natural gas resources, the responsible development of the Arctic coastal plain, and more — except now, federal officials will have no choice but to listen. Alaska’s natural resources are vital to our prosperity. That is why it’s in our interest to make our energy supplies as abundant, affordable, clean, diverse, and secure as possible. The best way to achieve these goals is to lead by example and encourage inclusive debate in both the committee and subcommittee. Bipartisanship and the flexibility to create solutions where perhaps none existed before are important, and I stand ready to work with federal agencies to create opportunities in Alaska. But that collaborative spirit ends when President Obama’s policies restrict access or stifle Alaskans. The greatest single issue of concern for many Alaskans is the high cost of energy. The good news is that we now have a unique opportunity to revisit our energy policies. Congress has not passed comprehensive energy legislation since 2007. Much has changed in the intervening years. It’s time to reimagine our energy policies and ensure that Alaska once again has a prominent role — as a source of supply for our nation, and a testbed for promising new technologies. As chairman I will pursue an aggressive energy and public lands agenda that promotes Alaska’s economic independence and self-reliance, all while respecting our environment. Implementing policies of abundance will help us finally access our rich resources. That includes the NPR-A — which has become a petroleum reserve in name only under President Obama — the waters of the outer continental shelf, the forests of Southeast, and many other areas where access has been prohibited. Promoting abundance is just the first step to making energy affordable. We must also look to energy efficiency to reduce costs for families and communities. From Kotzebue to Metlakatla and from Bethel to Eagle, improved energy efficiency for public buildings and homes offers a real opportunity to reduce energy bills. Voluntary programs rather than more government regulation is key to success. We must look for ways to continue building on the investments the Denali Commission and State of Alaska have made in energy for our communities and our people. Sadly, too many in Washington see policy as a pathway to protect Alaska from the people that live there. This attitude is especially visible in the current state of Arctic policy, where studies rather than investment is driving the agenda. With the United States taking over the Arctic Council this year, we must use our new leadership role to promote policies that respect the wishes of the Alaskans who call the Arctic home — and allow them to build lasting economies and create opportunities for their children. Low oil prices are creating a level of uncertainty about state revenues and some may want to look to Washington, D.C., for short-term answers, but lasting solutions will not come from another federal program. Instead they will come from policies that provide new access, facilitate new production, and finally achieve economic independence. With a restored Senate and key chairmanships, Alaska is well served in the 114th Congress. We should all be excited by the opportunities ahead. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is Alaska’s senior senator and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. She has been a member of the Energy Committee since 2002.

Conservation isn't the goal of the anti-setnetter initiative

As you’re out shopping this holiday season, someone wielding a clipboard might approach you and ask if you want to save king salmon. Don’t be fooled. The petition being peddled by professional signature collectors throughout the state won’t save Alaska’s iconic king salmon. In fact, it will hurt our great salmon runs and result in smaller harvests for everyone except a small group of Kenai River sportfishing guides, lodges and private landowners. The goal of this petition is to put a misleading initiative in front of Alaska voters that, if passed, would end setnet fishing in Cook Inlet, put hundreds of Alaska families out of work, destroy one of the Kenai Peninsula’s biggest economic drivers and, most important, weaken the salmon runs on which Cook Inlet’s commercial, sport and personal-use fishermen depend. Initiative sponsors claim conservation as their goal but this initiative isn’t about saving fish, it’s about putting more king salmon in the river for the sport fishery to catch. That’s not conservation. It’s greed. This selfish effort to ban setnets hits home for me: My wife is my business partner; my two teenage children are members of our commercial fishing crew. Our business, our income, our investment in boats, motors, equipment, land, shore leases and gear would all be rendered valueless because a small group of well-financed, dishonest people want all the fish. It has taken the joy out of fishing and replaced it with fear for the future of this valuable, rich and colorful fishery. In 2013, the average king harvested in the East Side Setnet fishery, or ESSN, was very small; more than 75 percent weighed about 10 pounds or less. These three- and four-year-old kings are not valued by the sport fishery, which targets and retains only large kings. That same year, the ESSN fishery harvested 2,988 king salmon. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s genetic stock identification studies, approximately 2,300 of these were Kenai River late-run king salmon. Only 715 were large kings the sport fishery desires. Based on data from 1986-2011, the Kenai River sport fishery harvests about 22 percent of the total annual king run. If the ESSN fishery had been eliminated and those additional 715 large kings had entered the Kenai River, only about 157 fish would have been caught by sport-fishermen. So this initiative would kill an entire industry and put thousands out of work to provide sport-fishermen the opportunity to catch an additional 157 king salmon. Because of a poor king run in 2013, the ESSN fishery was open under a very restrictive fishing schedule. Even so, the fishery generated an ex-vessel value of more than $9 million with its sockeye salmon catch alone. At the same time, the late king run made its escapement goal as it has every year since biologists have tracked it. According to an analysis of Alaska’s commercial seafood industry conducted by the Alaska-based McDowell Group, sockeye taken in Cook Inlet setnet fisheries generate a big impact in Alaska because the expenditure per fish is relatively high, and more are sold into local markets. McDowell says a conservative multiplier of 4 to 4.5 must be applied to that ex-vessel value to realize its true impact. That means the $9 million ESSN harvest brought roughly $40 million to the local economy. Had a setnet ban been in place, Alaska’s economy would have been deprived of these millions of dollars and thousands of fishing jobs. In order to offset the loss of the ESSN fishery, those additional 157 kings would have to generate more than $250,000 each, if caught in the in-river fishery. What is likely to happen if the inlet is managed solely for the guided sportfishing industry? Just look at the health of the Kenai River’s early king run for your answer. This run is fished solely by the sport fishery, and has been for decades. Unfortunately, it is in dire straits, having missed its escapement goals several times over the last two decades, most recently in 2013. Recent weir data shows that the majority of the run now consists of small, male fish. That comes as no surprise, either, as sport fishermen have continually selectively fished for the large, trophy kings, foregoing the smaller jacks. Size is a heritable trait in king salmon, and the removal of generation after generation of the large fish by the guided sport fishery has had a detrimental impact on Kenai River early-run king salmon both in run strength and individual fish size. The ESSN fishery, with nets designed to catch sockeye weighing four- to 10-pounds, also catch kings of the same size, giving the big Kenai kings that make it to the spawning grounds a greater impact on the population’s gene pool. This anti-setnet initiative has nothing to do with truth or conservation. It’s simply a smoke screen to hide the negative impact of the guided sport fishery on the health and well being of Kenai River king salmon. Andy Hall is an East Side setnetter, a lifelong Alaskan and president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association.

Research shows freshwater problem with Mat-Su salmon

The Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership, representing 55 organizations that share an interest in sustaining salmon in the Mat-Su, hosted a conference in November. During the two days of the 2014 Mat-Su Salmon Science & Conservation Symposium, speaker after speaker gave detailed descriptions of recent and on-going projects that are providing baseline data and documenting the scope of impaired salmon habitat in the Mat-Su basin. There were several presentations on aquatic invasive species. Elodea, a highly invasive plant species, was recently discovered in Alexander Lake, transported there by floatplane. This infestation, if not eliminated, could rapidly spread throughout Alexander Lake and creek system and further, providing excellent habitat for the other invasive specie, Northern Pike. In the 1990s Alexander Creek supported a multi-million dollar king salmon sport fishery that included numerous lodges, cabin and boat rentals and fishing guide operations. In 2008, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed king fishing in Alexander Creek and later documented its decline and closure as entirely due to pike predation on juvenile salmonids. In recent years ADFG has eliminated thousands of pike from the Alexander system but it will take years of continued mitigation before the salmon runs can recover. The spread of invasive elodea throughout the lake, creek and side sloughs will hinder ongoing efforts to rehabilitate this system. Shell Lake is another fascinating story. In 2006 Shell Lake had nearly 70,000 sockeye salmon return to spawn, by 2012 the salmon run had nearly collapsed due to pike predation and disease. The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association took eggs from the remaining salmon, incubated and reared them at their Trail Lakes Hatchery. About 80,000 smolts from this hatch were released back into Shell Lake in 2014. Only about 20,000 of these smolts made it out of the lake and downstream towards the ocean, the other 60,000 smolt were consumed by the Northern Pike in the lake within a few weeks. ADFG has been documenting the pike infestation in the Mat-Su basin since the mid-1990s. Numerous studies and reports have indentified the devastating consequences to the salmon populations, it is estimated that at least 50 percent of the salmon production in this watershed has been eliminated by Northern Pike. All species are affected and species that spend the most time in freshwater — sockeye, kings and cohos — are the most vulnerable to pike predation. At the symposium we heard references to the work being done to replace culverts that block salmon passage. At this time there are still over 400 culverts that impede the migration of salmon and need to be replaced in the Mat-Su basin. While there were no actual reports on the progress made, we know that it will take years of effort and millions of dollars to restore passage to the more than 600 miles of documented spawning and rearing habitat that have been made inaccessible to salmon due to improperly constructed culverts. Pollution, high water temperature and turbidity can all affect water quality and ultimately affect the successful spawning and rearing of salmon. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation gave a brief presentation about impaired waters. Big Lake, Cottonwood Creek, Deshka River, Little Su, Lake Lucille, Matanuska River and others are all impaired at some level from hydrocarbons (gas and oil), sewage, urban runoff, herbicides, fertilizers and dump debris. Off-road-vehicle and ATV traffic damage to salmon streams was presented as a long-term challenge. Baseline mapping of ATV stream crossings has begun. Most of the crossings evaluated were ranked as “extremely degraded”. We learned that ORV/ATV traffic in the watershed is unregulated and increasing. One of the keynote speakers at the Symposium gave a powerful presentation on the efforts to conserve and restore Atlantic salmon on the east coast and how partnering and collaboration among all stakeholder groups is essential for any conservation effort. This message resonated loudly and was endorsed by most of those attending. The Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership mission statement also echoes this message of collaboration. Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence of impaired salmon habitat, in spite of all the ADFG reports that identify declining salmon production in the Mat-Su basin as a freshwater problem, there are still a few people with such a myopic point of view that they are unwilling to accept these scientific realities. In a desperate and divisive attempt to blame someone else for their own problems, the Mat-Su Borough is proposing to waste the bulk of their recent state grant by hiring Outside consultants to invent new research projects about salmon movements in saltwater. Rather than killing pike, eliminating elodea, replacing more culverts, or reducing pollution sources, they want to fund projects that fit their agenda to perpetuate the salmon allocation wars. Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend increasingly scarce state funds on local projects with already identified solutions that will benefit our salmon resources, rather than waste money on high priced fishery consultants from Oregon? Erik Huebsch is a lifelong Alaska commercial fisherman who lives in Kasilof.

Change, opportunity in Alaska Communications' new focus

I once heard it said, “if you’re not moving forward, then you’re falling behind.” Those words aptly describe the motivations behind Alaska Communications’ decision, announced just last week, to move its business in an exciting new direction. After a long and proud history of serving Alaskans, Alaska Communications revealed Dec. 4 that it will focus on expanding its already successful broadband services and will discontinue providing wireless services. As an Alaskan, a customer and a member of the Alaska Communications board of directors, I believe this decision not only will boost the company’s future growth, but also provide customers with the highest quality broadband Internet services in Alaska. The company, recognizing the need to shift its focus and move forward, signed an agreement to sell its shared wireless network and wireless phone subscribers to GCI in a transaction that will close in 60 to 90 days. The sale will enable Alaska Communications to reinvest in its business, to further improve technology and service and provide more value to its customers. The company will become even stronger for the long-term. As the former president and CEO of one of Alaska’s largest businesses, I know firsthand how business enterprises need their service providers to deliver reliable, consistent service. By bringing focus specifically on the company’s broadband services, Alaska Communications will have the resources to bring faster, more reliable, unlimited internet to Alaska’s businesses and homes across the state — while continuing to grow its business offerings at an industry-leading pace. In this way, we will do our part to help Alaska’s businesses succeed. Already, Alaska Communications’ strength in broadband and its related IT-managed services has attracted major customers such as the State of Alaska, Providence Hospital, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and the Anchorage School District. I am no stranger to the need to lead business transitions and to shift focus. By definition, transitions involve change, and change can necessitate making difficult, even courageous, decisions. At Alaska Communications, we are fully committed to helping our employees — those who will no longer work for us and those who will help forge our new direction. We have made sure that people and resources are readily available to assist any member of our company through this transition. Our company has always valued its employees and will continue to promote a vibrant workplace in years to come. For Alaska Communications, Alaska truly is the most important place on earth. Our Alaskan roots are deep — with a history of being in business in Alaska for more than 100 years. Our employees understand the unique needs of Alaskan business and they work hard to earn their trust every day. Our commitment to providing first-rate customer care will not change. We are — and will remain — Alaskans serving Alaskans. Being Alaskan means being able to adapt. And in the fast-paced and ever-changing telecommunications industry to adapt is the only way to not fall behind. By leaving the wireless business, we emerge as a stronger, better and more profitable company. At Alaska Communications, we will build on our successful track record and move forward with focus and determination — strong and ready to seize new opportunities before us. Margie Brown is an Alaska Communications board member and the former president and CEO of CIRI.

Bristol Bay, Bering Sea need protection from oil drilling

There is no match to Alaska’s diverse and productive fisheries. From Southeast to the Bering Sea, we produce half of the U.S. domestic seafood. Fisheries management might be complex but the result is simple: healthy fisheries equal more jobs than any other private sector enterprise in the state and a tax base that supports Alaska’s coastal economy and communities.  Our responsibility is to take good care of the habitat that makes this abundance all possible so that future generations of Alaskan fishermen have an opportunity like we have had. Bristol Bay and the southeast waters of the Bering Sea is one place where choices should be clear. This region accounts for the greatest magnitude and wealth of Alaska’s fisheries. Not only are the rivers and lakes of Bristol Bay host to 50 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon, the marine waters support other valuable fisheries. Here is one of the most important halibut nursery grounds, contributing to the halibut population throughout both the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. What happens here arguably affects halibut fishermen everywhere. The prized red king crab grow to maturity in Bristol Bay and Alaska’s large groundfish fisheries, including pollock and cod, are located nearby. Herring arrive in the early spring, turning on a spectacle of marine life and supporting the significant roe, food and bait fisheries. There is a decision pending at the EPA about whether or not the super-sized Pebble mine can go forward in the Bristol Bay watershed. In this past November election, an impressive 75 percent of the voters agreed to raise the bar on approving future large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. There should be no question of the statewide concern about protecting the Bristol Bay salmon fishery from large-scale mining. Another decision is needed that will put to rest the question of opening the marine waters of Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea to offshore oil and gas drilling. Although promises can be made about more jobs and economic diversity, we have to ask at what risk? Not all economic activity is compatible with the long-term interests of the successful renewable industry we already have. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates the region’s oil and gas resources to be worth $7.7 billion over a 25- to 40-year period. The fisheries could produce $50 billion to $80 billion over that same time. The geology represents one of the lowest reserves around the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf. High risk but low return does not sound like a sound business plan for sustaining our fisheries or meeting our energy demand. In 1995, the U.S. Department of the Interior bought back leases from the oil companies that they had purchased in the 1980s because of ongoing and unresolved concerns that Bristol Bay is meant for fisheries, not offshore drilling. But since then the government has attempted to re-open the same area that had been bought back. We need a reliable decision to protect Bristol Bay now and for the future. This is the time to remove Bristol Bay and southeast Bering Sea from the federal oil and gas leasing program for good. It makes no sense to come back to the same question every five years when the Department of the Interior puts a new leasing schedule together. Presidents and administrations come and go, so it is our job to generate a lasting solution. As fishermen, we’re out there to catch fish and provide quality natural food for the nation — but the truly magnificent phenomenon of millions of sockeye surging to the rivers is a humbling observation every season. We need to provide permanent protection for Bristol Bay fisheries resources from economic displacement — like the Pebble mine and offshore oil and gas drilling — that jeopardizes the nation’s most valuable fisheries.  Please join us in support of a permanent withdrawal of Bristol Bay from the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. Longstanding Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishermen, Stosh Anderson lives in Kodiak, Alaska and Robert Heyano is a life-long resident of Bristol Bay.

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