“It specifically puts out in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, that we should subdue nature and control it. We should be the managers of the animals. And through the sin of Adam and Eve is what brought it on. And in fact the first clothes that were made for Adam and Eve were the skins of animals. By God.” -- Fairbanks trapper and fur tanner Al Barrette
Forget, for a moment, that Al Barrette’s appointment to the Alaska Board of Game is being fought partly because his philosophies on wildlife management seem to be largely informed by Genesis 1:28, which in the King James version of the Bible reads, “And God blessed them [Adam and Eve], and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Barrette’s words have struck a nerve – and generated lots of discussion, at least within Alaska’s conservationist circles – because, I think, they touch on larger cultural issues. His reference to Genesis comes at a time when significant numbers of people – Christians among them – believe that “dominion,” as originally used in English versions of the Bible, can be interpreted in different ways. It may, in fact, be intended to mean stewardship and caretaking, rather than domination and control. To those who argue for a literal interpretation of dominion (and more generally, the entire Bible), I would point out that the Bible, as we know it, has gone through many translations across the centuries. Biblical scholars tell us that meanings in one language often shift, sometimes subtly, when translated into another language, even if originally inspired by the Word of God. To take things even farther, nowadays many people – again including some Christians – believe the Bible should be read allegorically, not literally.
I don’t offer these thoughts lightly, having been raised a fundamentalist Christian while growing up in a devoutly religious family, with parents and siblings whom I love and admire as much now as ever. In my youth and early adulthood, I was a devoted Lutheran and firm believer in the Christian Triune God and God’s Holy Scripture. My beliefs have changed, but memories – and fundamentalist influences – still linger, sometimes more strongly than I care to admit. In short, I come at this with something of an “insider’s” perspective.
Besides questioning Barrette’s interpretation and application of Genesis, I also find it sad that he – and perhaps many other Christians – believe that this directive to subdue and control and manage “every living thing” results from humanity’s own sin. Because the first humans sinned, the rest of nature should suffer at our hands? Where’s the sense, the compassion, in that? Do we want someone who believes such things to be determining wildlife management policies and regulations?
A couple more thoughts before moving on. First, I know it’s possible for comments to be taken out of context or misinterpreted. But Barrette discussed Genesis with a Backpacker magazine reporter whom he knew was working on a story about Alaska’s management of wolves and the controversial trapping of wolves just outside Denali National Park’s borders. Why quote the Bible unless he felt it was important for the reporter to understand the basis of his attitudes toward managing wildlife? I’ll give Barrette credit, though, to openly share his beliefs. My bigger fear is that other members of the Board of Game and the many committees that advise the board have similar beliefs but are unwilling to admit so.
For all of the furor that Barrette’s Genesis comments have generated among wildlife conservationists, I agree with independent biologist and former BOG member Vic Van Ballenberghe, that Barrette’s religious beliefs aren’t likely to convince the Alaska Legislature he’s unfit for the Board of Game. My guess is that a lot of legislators – and many Alaskans – have similar views. In fact he’s probably more mainstream than those of us who don’t believe we have a God-given mandate – or right – to subdue, control, or dominate nature. It’s also unlikely that claims of a conflict of interest, tied to Barrette’s fur-tanning and trap-making businesses, will make much of a stir. If big-game hunting guides can serve on the Board of Game and commercial fishermen and sport-fishing guides sit on the Board of Fisheries, why not someone who makes his living from the trapping industry? Of course he should remove himself from deliberations, when the board takes up issues in which he has a vested interest.
Still, Barrette faces some problems, mostly of his own making.
Earlier this week, I attended a House Resources Committee hearing in which Barrette had a chance to explain why he’s a good choice for the Board of Game and also address the slings and arrows aimed his way by those who oppose his appointment to the BOG. According to one committee member, comments both opposing and supporting Barrette’s appointment filled a half-inch-thick packet.
When asked about the Genesis quote, Barrette tried to backtrack a little, explaining, “I wasn’t as clear on that as I should have been.” Yet he also admitted that his religious beliefs are “just a cornerstone” of his wildlife management philosophies. I got the sense he meant to downplay his earlier reference to Genesis, but didn’t choose his words well. My dictionary defines cornerstone as “an indispensible and fundamental basis,” whether for an argument, belief, action, etc. But maybe I misread him.
Most questions from committee members and follow-up public testimony by citizens who addressed Barrette’s appointment steered clear of the Bible, focusing instead on his actions and statements at the recent Board of Game meeting, held in Fairbanks. Though not yet confirmed to the BOG, Barrette was allowed to participate in that meeting as Gov. Parnell’s replacement pick for Bob Bell. (It’s not uncommon for appointees to begin serving on boards before the legislature takes a confirmation vote, so that’s not an issue here.)
Barrette’s performance at both that BOG meeting and Monday’s hearing, and not his Biblical underpinnings, is what should ultimately doom his appointment, if the Alaska Legislature properly does its job. If anything, the Fairbanks trapper proved himself to be among the more extreme members of a board already loaded with hunting- and trapping-rights advocates.
The newly appointed Barrette proved to be the swing vote in a 4-3 decision to eliminate the Denali wolf buffer, despite widespread support for the buffer among Alaskans, plus evidence from the National Park Service that increased numbers of wolves from packs seen regularly along the Denali Park Road in summer are getting killed just outside the park boundary in winter. Barrette was also among those to ignore the pleas of Healy residents, who asked the BOG to impose a trapping ban in what Barbara Brease has described as “a small area near the majority of Healy residences.” The problem, Brease explains, is that “Pets have been getting caught in traps set near homes, and many residents are concerned with the possibility of traps nearly in our back yard. . . . All residents asked for was the ability to walk their dogs near their homes without fear of them getting in traps.” The request seems more than reasonable – who wants traps in their back yards? – yet the board ignored it. On Monday, Barrette rationalized that a single “bad trapper” caused the problem; that person has been cited and the Alaska Trappers Association is doing some educational outreach in the Healy area and that’s that. But why the heck couldn’t the BOG enact a ban that most of a community supports? Trapping near homes and along popular community trails makes no sense at all. Neither does the board’s decision or Barrette’s explanation.
Just as troubling to Barrette critic Wade Willis is that the trapper “petitioned the board to allow the use of snowmachines to harvest wolves within the revoked Denali wolf buffer zone,” a recommendation that no other board members supported. Willis, who observed and recorded the board’s Fairbanks deliberations, notes that chairman Cliff Judkins – no shrinking violet when it comes to wolf-killing programs – responded to Barrette’s request with this comment: “I just cringe at the thought of a snowmachiner running down the park boundary chasing wolves. It’s almost beyond me. It might be something to do but I don’t know if I could do it.” And Barrette?
There’s more. Lots more, actually. Especially notable are the comments of Jack Reakoff, a resident of Wiseman in the southern Brooks Range, and a highly regarded trapper, hunter, naturalist, commercial fisherman, and subsistence proponent. I listened to Reakoff’s testimony before the BOG and found it to be among the most compelling presentations given, demonstrating a keen awareness of the region’s wildlife, hunting practices, and conservation concerns. By his own account, Reakoff has followed wildlife management issues for more than two decades. Currently he’s the co-chair of the Koyukuk Advisory Committee and chair of the Western Interior Regional Advisory Council. He knows his stuff.
Reakoff brings a far different perspective than us Anchorage-area greenies. But like Willis, Van Ballenberghe, and myself (and many others), he too is asking the legislature to reject Barrette’s appointment to the BOG. In a letter to the House and Senate Resources Committees (reprinted as an opinion piece in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner), Reakoff notes that, during the board’s deliberations, “Mr. Barrette discounted local recommendations [made by local and regional advisory groups] and at times ridiculed, on the record, concerns expressed [by those same groups].”
Furthermore, Barrette several times made motions that would “suppress resident use seasons,” to the benefit of non-residents. Perhaps worse of all, he “demonstrated a complete lack of conservation ethic” when he “Voted to allow non-residents to kill [up to] five cow caribou that are skinny and nursing, leaving the calf to die.”
Reakoff goes on: “The Legislative Senate and House Resource Committees should not confirm Mr. Barrette. [In actions taken at the March meeting] he has already done tremendous damage to the Alaskans’ priority, sustained yield, and the valid perception that the public’s wishes are not being listened to. The current majority of the BOG has violated the public’s confidence, [and] acts with impunity while violating sustained-yield parameters and the resident subsistence preference. Mr. Barrette did not recuse himself from voting on issues benefitting him monetarily. Mr. Barrette is a compounding factor of a building problem with the BOG process. The cumulative affect to the resources is damage and loss.”
It’s encouraging to hear a voice from remote rural Alaska making many of the same arguments that we so-called wolf-hugging environmental extremists have been making for years. We can only hope that legislators will give more weight to folks like Reakoff than they do to us. For years, the BOG has represented a very narrow slice of the Alaskan public, and Barrette’s addition to the board would only serve to make it an even more narrow-minded – and extreme – policy-making body.
If all that isn’t enough, there’s also the fact that Barrette misled the House Resources Committee during his Monday testimony. For one thing, he misrepresented the National Park Service’s stance on the Denali wolf buffer. For another, he denied that he petitioned the board to allow snowmachine use in the former buffer zone for the purpose of killing wolves. On several other occasions he avoided directly answering questions posed to him.
In his own statement to the House Resources Committee, Barrette emphasized he’s a family man who has a passion for Alaska’s wildlife. He and his family “probably spend more time as [wildlife] viewers and users of state parks than hunting and trapping.” Besides that, he loves to teach. Among his favorite subjects: ethics. All of that may be true. And maybe, as Reakoff notes, “he is a nice enough guy and is industrious.” But again to quote Reakoff, “That is not the question.” When it comes to the questions that matter most, Barrette badly fails the grade. And so I echo Reakoff’s request to the Senate and House Resources Committees and the legislature as a whole: Do not confirm Al Barrette to the Alaska Board of Game.
A final note: after learning that Barrette took a beating Monday, the ironically named Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Alaska Chapter – a predator-control advocacy group whose sporting interests emphasize ever-expanding bear and wolf-kill programs so that “sportsmen” have more caribou and moose to kill – sent out an alert to flood the Senate Resources Committee (which meets today, April 7) with comments in support of Al Barrette. Among the group’s talking points, No. 1 is this: Barrette listens to everyone who has wildlife issues and/or concerns.
I guess no one from SFW attended the recent Board of Game meeting, when Barrette dismissed or ignored presentations by the National Park Service, Healy residents, and representatives of several rural advisory groups with subsistence concerns. He listened all right, to the people whose interests mirror his own. Those narrow interests don’t need another advocate on the BOG; they have plenty already. So I’ll say it again: if the legislature wants to address the problem of “damage and loss” that Reakoff describes, it must reject Al Barrette.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of 12 books; his most recent is Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness, published by the University of Alaska Press.