Last week Governor Sean Parnell issued a press release railing against the villainy of federal overreach, state involvement in enforcing national laws, and what he called an “excessive show of force.” At the heart of the issue was the way the Environmental Protection Agency and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation handled investigations over possible violations of the Clean Water Act.
The investigations targeted placer mining operations in the vicinity of Chicken, Alaska. After browbeating the Department of Environmental Conservation for their involvement, Parnell called for a special counsel to investigate the investigation. He went so far as to say:
“This level of intrusion and intimidation of Alaskans is absolutely unacceptable. I will not tolerate any state agency’s participation in this sort of reckless conduct. There are many unanswered questions and I will seek a special counsel to get to the bottom of this matter and work to ensure it never happens again.”
It would be a great gesture, supporting the rights of Alaskans and their right to pursue a quiet lifestyle in the wild and untamed lands of Interior Alaska, if it wasn’t complete, hypocritical bullshit.
Anybody who lives on (or off of) the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers will tell you the governor has no quarrel with excessive uses of force by state and federal agencies. When it comes to ensuring escapement of salmon in these watersheds, the State of Alaska has not hesitated to roll out helicopters and boats loaded with Alaska State Troopers geared with flak jackets and brandishing assault rifles while they slash subsistence nets and confiscate “illegal” king salmon. Their reckless conduct doesn’t just erode public trust in state government; it takes food out of the mouths of people who live off the land.
The actions taken last year by the state of Alaska were so invasive that they inspired native leaders to organize “illegal” fishing excursions in protest. But when you flip back through the governor’s press releases from last summer, there’s not a single one brow beating the state troopers or Alaska Department of Fish and Game for what was a huge public relations nightmare.
Some might think that the difference is in jurisdiction, that the state has a responsibility to use force when necessary to protect a state resource. The problem with that assessment is that the driving factor for shutting down salmon in the Yukon-Kuskokwim isn’t just ensuring escapement for Alaska fisheries. We have a federal obligation to allow escapement into Canada as well. Over the years, Alaska has failed to meet that obligation to provide Canada with their allotment of kings. That’s a problem since an estimated 50% of Alaska Yukon salmon originate from Canadian headstreams.
Were flak jackets necessary for checking water quality? Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. Having spent time in Tok, Alaska, I can tell you how scary that part of the state can be. People live there because they don’t want to be bothered by people or by government (state or federal) and they don’t want to pay taxes. I’ve never seen so many “Keep Out” and “Trespassers will be shot” signs in one populated area. If I’m a federal official trying to do my job and poking around in the woods of Interior Alaska, I would most certainly want to be protected. You never know when you might come across a bear or some contraband operation. Having state representatives on the scene is also useful, because state officials often know the social and ecological lay of the land and sometimes have better rapport with locals. The last thing you want to do in Interior Alaska is walk up to an operation in the woods and say “Hi, I’m with the EPA.”
How can a Governor demonize one state agency for aiding in the enforcement of federal laws in one hand, while consistently and simultaneously using state agencies and a greater show of force to aid in the enforcement of federal and international treaties in the other hand? Article 8, Sect 17 of the Alaska State Constitution declares that “regulations governing the use or disposal of natural resources shall apply equally to all persons similarly situated.” Why is military-like force appropriate for rural Alaska when salmon are mismanaged, but not when watersheds are at risk? What makes miners and state troopers superior to Alaska Natives and Department of Environmental Conservation employees? Where was the outrage and admonition over excessive force when State Troopers were cutting nets and seizing vital fish?
Maybe the governor should quit using the EPA as his favorite whipping child in his political grandstanding. If he genuinely cares about “intrusion and intimidation of Alaskans” then maybe he should keep a tighter leash on how the state handles subsistence crackdowns. Those fish are just as vital to the Alaskan way of life as mining. Failing to do so creates a double standard.