- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

JUNEAU, Alaska, Jan. 24 (UPI) — Alaska environmentalists were abuzz Friday after new Gov. Frank Murkowski, announced plans to consolidate the state permitting process for natural resources development projects.

The proposal contained in Murkowski's State of the State address Thursday night would place the permitting authority solely with the Department of Natural Resources and cut out habitat experts from the state Department of Fish and Game that he said were often the sole opposition to "legitimate projects."

"On many occasions, the habitat division has been the sole agency opposing and delaying legitimate — and I want to emphasize legitimate — projects important to the state," Murkowski, a Republican, said in his first State of the State speech since he gave up his seat in the U.S. Senate to run for governor.

Randy Virgin, director of the Alaska Center for the Environment, told the Anchorage Daily News the move was akin to "putting the fox in charge of the hen house."

Murkowski, a former senior member of the Senate Energy Committee, has long been an advocate of increasing the development of Alaska's natural resources, and campaigned on the premise that increased development was needed to generate jobs and revenues.

"What is our plan for increasing revenue? Well, ladies and gentlemen, in a single word: oil," Murkowski said.

In his wide-ranging address, Murkowski said he would push for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and that he would intervene in lawsuits he believed hurt the lumber industry.

He also called for a streamlining of the state's permitting process for natural resources projects by pacing the entire process under the DNR's umbrella.

"That certainly was music to my ears," Republican State Senate President Gene Therriault told the Anchorage Daily News.

Murkowski and representatives of the resources industry pledged that environmental protections would remain a top priority in the permit process, however some Legislature Democrats and other critics said they feared the DNR would give the green light to projects that were scientifically unsound and would hurt the state in the long run.

Chip Dennerlein, who headed Fish and Game's habitat division under Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, told the Daily News that the advice of scientists trained in wildlife habitat and fisheries would hold little formal weight.

"This is an absolutely terrible idea, and it runs counter to the best practices and best science and what we know about protecting fish in the long term," Dennerlein said.

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