Alaska's next governor will inherit some sticky questions: Does the state really want the so-called "bridges to nowhere?" Is it OK to keep shooting wolves from airplanes? On Wednesday, the three leading candidates for the job gave some answers.
Independent Andrew Halcro, Democrat Tony Knowles and Republican Sarah Palin found there's a little they agree on and a lot they don't when it comes to a grab bag of issues at an Anchorage debate hosted by the Alaska Conservation Voters, a group that supports pro-environment laws and politicians.
The association plans to meet next week to cement its decision on who to endorse, executive director Kate Troll said.
All three candidates said they like the idea of creating a citizen committee to watch over the oil industry on the North Slope, following recent spills, the partial shutdown of the Prudhoe Bay field and multiple investigations of extensive pipeline corrosion and company maintenance practices.
There was less consensus on what to do about the wolf-killing program the state Board of Game authorized in 2003 as a way to curb the populations of predators and boost the number of moose and caribou for hunters.
Moderator Steve MacDonald asked the candidates if they would continue aerial wolf hunting.
"If I am elected, I don't want you to be surprised that I am a proponent of predator control in order to build those populations of moose and caribou," Palin said. She quoted the Alaska Constitution's provision that fish and game be used and managed for "sustained yield."
Halcro said predator control -- including aerial wolf hunting -- is appropriate in some areas, but only if the governor and the commissioner of Fish and Game are deciding when and where predators are to be killed. He said the decision should not be up to the seven-member Game Board, which he said isn't accountable to the public.
Knowles said: "I do not support aerial wolf hunting. If you ask almost any hunter, guide, they'll say it's not hunting, it's killing."
But he said predator control is a legitimate wildlife management tool if it's based on science and conducted by the state in a humane and efficient manner.
Asked later in the day for clarification -- what type of wolf control is OK, if not aerial killing? -- Knowles spokeswoman Patty Ginsburg said Knowles is opposed to aerial wolf hunting by the public, but not necessarily aerial killing conducted by the state.
As for the infamous "bridges to nowhere," MacDonald asked if the candidates would forge ahead with the proposed Knik Arm crossing between Anchorage and Point MacKenzie and Ketchikan's Gravina Island bridge. Each has received more than $90 million in federal funding and drew nationwide attacks as being unnecessary and expensive. He also asked if they support building an access road from Juneau toward -- but not completely connecting to -- Skagway and Haines.
"I do support the infrastructure projects that are on tap here in the state of Alaska that our congressional delegations worked hard for," Palin said. She said the projects link communities and create jobs.
Still, Palin warned that the flow of federal money into the state for such projects is going to slow.
One of the themes of Halcro's campaign is the need to stabilize Alaska's economy. While he supports the Knik Arm crossing and the Gravina Island bridge in theory, Halcro said, the state can't afford them today and could have trouble maintaining them in the future.
As for the road out of Juneau -- it would be a dead-end, he said. Halcro said that if the access road ends up only going as far as the Kensington Mine, that's not something public money should have to pay for.
Alaskans like big projects, Knowles said, but the Knik Arm crossing doesn't have a concrete price tag yet. "Before any decision can be made, in terms of yes or no, let's find out what the projects cost," he said.
With a limited amount of money coming from the federal government to pay for transportation projects in Alaska, the state's priority should be projects that make roads safer, spur economic development or meet existing community needs, he said.
Each candidate was given a chance to ask one of the other candidates a question. Palin asked Knowles about oversight of the oil industry on the North Slope -- was there anything his administration or Murkowski's administration could have done better?
"Well, you always wish that there was things that you could have done better, and in hindsight that's how you learn," said Knowles, though he pointed to oversight over the last four years under Murkowski as evidence that the state needs a change.
Knowles asked Palin if she would support amending the state constitution to give rural residents a subsistence preference when game is scarce.
No, Palin said. "There's an equality clause in our constitution that I think should be respected." She also said that people who need the resources most should be able to harvest them first.
Halcro had a question for Palin too. Over the past eight months of campaigning, he said, Palin has talked about defending the state constitution.
"But from my standpoint, one of the most critical parts of our constitution is the right to privacy. ... Will you as governor give equal weight to the right to privacy and protecting a woman's right to choose?" he asked, drawing applause from a few tables around the room.
Palin said the forum was about conservation issues and that the abortion question is divisive.
"Andrew, bless your heart, you know my position on abortion, I'm pro life," she said. "For years, even when you asked me how many times to run as your running mate, you knew what my position was there."
Alaska Conservation Voters endorsed Knowles in 1998 and supported his former lieutenant governor, Democrat Fran Ulmer, in the 2002 governor's race.
The candidates are now facing off at events around the state several times a week, and the pace pretty much continues until the Nov. 7 election. While Halcro, Knowles and Palin all attended the conservation debate, the Knowles campaign criticized Palin for the places she hasn't been this week. Knowles spokeswoman Ginsburg said Palin canceled meetings with the Alaska Nurses Association and a group of Native corporation CEOs.
Nurses Association director Dianne O'Connell said it's true the group planned an informal meeting with Palin on Sunday but that Palin canceled that morning. Still, O'Connell noted that Palin did talk to the association at a conference earlier this year. Vicki Otte, director of the Association of ANCSA Regional Corporation Presidents and CEOs, said Palin was scheduled a month in advance to meet with the corporation heads Tuesday but canceled that day.
"Does she only do stuff she's comfortable with?" Ginsburg said.
Palin spokesman Curtis Thomas countered that Palin is comfortable anywhere, isn't trying to avoid anything and simply can't be everywhere at once.
He wouldn't say where Palin went instead of meeting with the Native corporation leaders -- "you'll just have to trust her," he said -- and said Palin doesn't have to report in to the Knowles campaign.
Reporter Kyle Hopkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.