Vincent-Lang to focus on sustainability, trust and state control as commissioner
As the state administration turns over, most departments have a new face in the commissioner’s office. At the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, that’s only half true.
Though Acting Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang is new to the commissioner’s office, he’s hardly new to the agency. He led the Division of Wildlife Conservation from 2012-14 and worked in various capacities with the department dating back to 1981.
As soon as Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy was inaugurated, he named Vincent-Lang as his acting commissioner pending the approval of the joint boards of Fisheries and Game, who were scheduled to interview him on Jan. 16.
Unlike other cabinet-level positions, commissioners of the departments of Fish and Game and Education must be recommended as qualified by the respective boards. Dunleavy is retaining Dr. Michael Johnson as the commissioner of Education.
Although Dunleavy said he had “no clear preference” for commissioner, Vincent-Lang was the only applicant for the position. Should the board approve his candidacy, his name will be forwarded to the governor for confirmation by the Legislature.
Stepping into the commissioner’s office isn’t necessarily a career move for Vincent-Lang, he said.
“This is a challenging job,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. I have two new grandkids and I enjoy spending quality time with my grandkids … I hope to find the best work-life balance.”
As the commissioner, all decisions boil down to sustainable management of animals, Vincent-Lang said. One of the biggest challenges moving forward will be how to continue the department’s operations and management with declining funds from the state general fund, he said.
ADFG has not taken as steep a general fund cut as other departments, but as oil prices remain low and the Legislature turns down other revenue options, departments are having to get creative on maintaining operations.
At ADFG, that has meant reducing surveys and research projects and reducing some staff positions. On the sport fishing and hunting side, that decline has been buffered some by an increase in hunting and fishing licenses, allowing the department to draw down more federal dollars to support operations like weirs and boat launch maintenance.
Vincent-Lang was involved in the push to increase in sport hunting and fishing license fees in 2015 and 2016. The effort was unique because it came from the stakeholders themselves, he said; it saw little opposition because the users saw the need to increase funding for management.
“As we move forward, we’re going to have to figure that out on the commercial fishing side,” Vincent-Lang said.
In the long term, the department also faces the challenge of how to draw more young people into hunting and fishing, both on the commercial and sport sides. Millennials purchase fewer sportfishing and hunting licenses than their elders; the American Sportfishing Association found that sportfishing licenses sales nationwide declined among people 18 to 34 between 1980 and 2011.
That decline has affected Alaska, too, which is something the department needs to consider for the future, Vincent-Lang said. That also applies to the commercial fisheries, which are broadly experiencing a “graying of the fleet” as the average age of permit holders increases because the financial threshold of entry is too expensive for young fishermen.
The commissioner also holds the responsibility of connecting the department staff to the boards of Fisheries and of Game. In his application letter to the joint boards, Vincent-Lang wrote that he supports the boards’ role in management and their citizen Advisory Committees, ensuring that they have “the best available information to inform their resource allocation decisions” and not impact sustainability. He also wrote that while science plays an important role in management decisions, it is not the only consideration.
“These are public trust resources,” he said. “We’re scientific experts, but we can’t do that in a vacuum without gaining people’s trust. It’s a two-way street.”
To that end, Vincent-Lang has already delegated a staff member specifically to help build relationships with the public on sportfishing and hunting issues: Rick Green, widely known as Rick Rydell, a longtime conservative radio host and former Anchorage Advisory Committee member.
A major theme that Dunleavy heard while campaigning was a lack of public trust and frustration with ADFG’s decisions. Green was appointed a special assistant to the commissioner to work on that problem, Vincent-Lang said.
“(Green) has a lot of different people that he knows across the state,” he said. “(He’ll work on) trying to rebuild that trust.”
On the hunting side, one major issue the department will continue to press on is state control over regulations on game management. The state sued the federal Interior Department in January 2017 over new regulations restricting certain hunting methods on federal lands in national parks and preserves and specifically on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The state felt the rules interfered with the Board of Game’s ability to regulate game populations and, after pressure from Rep. Don Young in Congress in May 2017, the federal government began the process of reconsidering the regulations.
If he’s confirmed as commissioner, Vincent-Lang said he would continue to press for state control over game management.
“We are going to continue that battle, because we think they’re intruding on the state’s right to manage,” he said.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].