“Politicking” always drives picking the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It’s usually behind-the-scenes maneuvering to manipulate the list of names the governor gets from the Boards of Fish and Game. That’s the way it was with Cora Campbell’s selection until last week when a former Anchorage Daily News writer hit the blogosphere critiquing Gov. Parnell’s choice as “political.” Having worked in Fish and Game’s “Game Division” before its name and mission were softened to today’s “Division of Wildlife Conservation,” and having been through the commissioner-application process, I think I can offer some insight into the process and the players.
The blogger went wrong when he trusted unreliable sources, ex-Wildlife Division progressives defending their legacy. That legacy is today’s politically correct, anti-management philosophy within the Department of Fish and Game. Next, the blogger naively claimed the commissioner-selection process is implicitly apolitical. It’s not; neither is the Department of Fish and Game. It was created by politicians for accepted socio-political purposes and is bound to follow our Constitution’s specific policies and intent. Those arguing otherwise, and calling Ms. Campbell an unqualified political hack, incorrectly allege requirements for Fish and Game commissioner that suit their present purposes. The qualifications for Fish and Game commissioner may be correctly inferred from Alaska Statute Sec.16.05.020. Functions of Commissioner.
According to Alaska law, the commissioner has three major functions. The first, to “supervise and control the department ... for the general administration of the department”; the second, to “manage, protect, maintain, improve, and extend the fish, game, and aquatic plant resources of the state in the interest of the economy and general well-being of the state.” These seemed simple at statehood but have become quite complex. I infer that’s why we have the third function, “ ... the necessary power ... to delegate authority to subordinate officers and employees of the department.”
When being commissioner was simple, an experienced fisheries or wildlife manager thoroughly steeped in the Roosevelt Doctrine (that management should be science-based) could do the job. As things got more complicated, a single person couldn’t do it. Additionally, special interests and special-interest governors began to play agenda-politics with commissioner selections. Traditionally, commercial fishing dominated the choice because of fishing money and its influence. Still, we’ve had everything from English majors to planners and even some competent biologists or managers as commissioners. Former Commissioner Denby Lloyd was among the better ones. He, a commercial fish guy, wisely delegated responsibility for wildlife management to an experienced wildlife manager, the deputy commissioner for wildlife. Lloyd was also more constitutionally oriented than those previous commissioners preferred by Parnell’s opponents. Naturally, Commissioner Lloyd’s team shared the perspectives held by the governors under whom he served. This view demands wildlife be actively managed for the “benefit of the economy and general well-being of the state,” consistent with the Statehood Act and intent of the Alaska Constitution. Constitutional intent is clearly articulated in the notes of the resource committee that drafted Article VIII (Natural Resources). It isn’t the “hands off” or “custodial” management progressive that Fish and Game alumni seek to protect.
I infer anti-management philosophers don’t like Cora Campbell because they anticipate she will honor the Constitution’s clear intent. If so, she will favor wildlife abundance/predator control, she will resist federal takeover and “ecosystem feel-good” policies, and she will demand that the folks she delegates, supervises and administers follow that script. In short, she may be expected to “set wildlife management back 50 years.” I hope so.
Because of progressive or inattentive commissioners, Wildlife Conservation employees have enjoyed 25 years of basic freedom to do (or ignore) whatever they’ve wanted. This period spanned the entire careers of those former employees fearing for their legacy. They never knew differently, so they naturally oppose constitutional realignment of Wildlife Division’s mission. Restoring a degraded organizational culture isn’t easy. Today’s autonomy-loving managers also think “It’s always been this way.” They’re wrong. But progressive, rebellious Fish and Game dissidents and alumni can always get media attention. I think Cora Campbell frightens those fearing a stricter mission-driven organizational culture at Fish and Game.
Ms. Campbell appears to be a competent administrator with competent assistants in Deputy Commissioner for Wildlife Craig Fleener and Wildlife Division Director Corey Rossi. These guys are having a tough time dealing with leftover, contract-protected progressives recruited by commissioners and directors who didn’t respect their constitutional mission. Ms. Campbell and her staff deserve a chance to fix it. Gov. Parnell deserves the appreciation and respect of those who revere the Alaska Constitution. Others can join Audubon or The Center for Biological Diversity and hope for a less-assertive administration next time.
Wayne E. Heimer worked 25 years at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.