New Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appointments to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are rocking a state agency unaccustomed to dramatic change.
Gone is affable Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a one-time state legislator and former commercial fisherman in a land where the latter carries a certain cachet.
In his place, pending approval by the Joint Boards of Fish and Game and the Alaska Legislature, is Doug Vincent-Lang, a biologist who spent most of his career working in sport fisheries, which some in the commercial fishing business consider an enemy.
The 55-year-old broadcaster signed off at KENI radio 650 AM on Friday and popped up in a press release the same day as a new fish and game employee.
“…Green, who is perhaps best known as top-rated radio talk show host Rick Rydell, will be charged with outreach to user groups as special assistant to the commissioner,” the press release said.
Green is an avid hunter and fishermen with deep connections to the Alaska Outdoor Council (AOC), the state’s largest hunting and fishing organization. For several years he has been the emcee at the AOC’s Annual Anchorage banquet and fundraiser.
With local talk radio on the same downhill slide as newspapers, he has been known to have been looking for a new gig for some time. About a year ago, he was reported to be in line for the Environmental Protection Agency’s top job in Alaska.
Green does have some environmental experience beyond being a hunter and fisherman. He once worked as an environmental manager for Bristol Environmental Services, a subsidiary of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. The company cleaned up old, U.S. Air Force dumpsites near King Salmon on the east edge of the bay.
Green’s relationship with his new co-workers could prove interesting. An advocate for reducing bear numbers in the Anchorage area – where there have been multiple bear attacks and two fatalities in the past two years – Green once referred on-air to a state wildlife biologist with a differing opinion as a “turd.”
In a brief telephone interview Friday, Green said he doesn’t really think of wildlife biologists as turds and looked forward to working with the staff at Fish and Game. And if he runs into serious controversy, it is probably more likely to come from outside the agency than from inside given that Green is part of a slate of Dunleavy appointments who skew toward resource use instead of just resource preservation.
New Deputy Commissioner of Fish and Game Ben Mulligan is coming to Fish and Game from a job as the vice-president of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce. And Eddie Grasser, the new director of the agency’s Division of Wildlife, was a lobbyist, consultant and vice-president for Safari Club International, an advocacy group for big-game hunters.
Both men do have experience in fish and wildlife resource issues. Mulligan has a degree in biology with a fisheries emphasis from the University of Wyoming and worked as a fisheries technician in Bristol Bay before moving into politics to work as a legislative aide on the way to becoming former Gov. Sean Parnell’s legislative liaison for fish and wildlife issues.
A University of Alaska graduate, Grasser spent more than 15 years after his college days helping run the family guiding business. His late father, Marlin, was a well-known Alaska big-game guide.
Eddie, now 65, later got involved in grassroots politics working for various pro-hunting and pro-gun groups and the Alaska Legislature and for a time in the mid-2000s served as a special assistant to the Commissioner of Fish and Game.
He will, however, be a rarity among Wildlife Division directors. The vast majority had degrees in wildlife management, ecology, biology or related fields even though division directors have little direct connection with actual wildlife management. The job mainly involves managing people and that’s much different from managing wildlife.
Still, the appearance of an outsider in a position of power always makes insiders at the agency uncomfortable as does change in general. And Dunleavy has clearly rattled the status quo.
Enter the new commissioner
Commercial fisheries is the tail that shakes the Fish and Game dog, and it’s a big tail.
State funds that flow to the Division of Commercial Fisheries are about 18 times greater than those going to the Division of Wildlife or the Division of Sport Fisheries, which are largely supported by federal revenues generated by hidden taxes on fishing and hunting gear.
Dunleavy’s appointment of Vincent-Lang, a former sport fisheries biologist, as interim commissioner raised plenty of eyebrows despite Vincent-Lang’s long history with the state agency.
A University of Alaska Fairbanks alumni with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Vincent-Lang worked his way up through the agency’s sport fish division before becoming a special assistant to then Commissioner Cora Campbell in the administration of former Gov. Sarah Palin.
He later moved on to become the state’s endangered species coordinator and in 2002 the director of the Wildlife Division. That did not sit well with some wildlife personnel at the time.
“He has a penchant for doing what his supervisors tell him, and that skill has been increasingly marketable in the Department of Fish and Game ever since Frank Murkowski became governor in 2002,” newly retired Anchorage area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott wrote in the Alaska Dispatch at the time.
“Like Vincent-Lang, Campbell was a special assistant for several years, reporting directly to Palin and Parnell. Before that she was a lobbyist for a commercial fishing organization. Before that she obtained a degree in education. Before that, well, she was in high school. Campbell is a little over 30 years old.”
Sinnott went on to criticize state opposition to the classification of Cook Inlet beluga whales and polar bears as endangered species – policies with which Vincent-Lang was involved – but did observe that the issue of “Vincent-Lang’s qualifications isn’t as much about him as it is about the commissioner and governor. He isn’t ethically challenged, like (former wildlife director Corey) Rossi, and with his education and experience he might make a decent director of sport fisheries.”
Though wildlife division employees, none of whom wanted to speak on the record, said Vincent-Lang did an OK job as division director, Fish and Game is an insular agency split along divisional lines. Some former commercial fishery biologists, who also asked not to be named, used four-letter words significantly more profane than turd in describing Vincent-Lang.
The state agency has never been run by a commissioner who came up through the sport fish division. For the first 40 years of state history, the route to commissioner ran thorough the commercial fishery or wildlife divisions, but the position has become more about politics and less about science in the past 15 years.
The most important credentials of McKie Campbell, commissioner from 2004 to 2006, were that he was a former deputy chief of staff to the late Gov. Wally Hickel, and a one-time Juneau assemblyman and a legislative aide in the Capital City.
Campbell was replaced by Denby Lloyd, commissioner from 2007 to 2010. Lloyd came up through the commercial fish division of Fish and Game, but he was replaced by Cora Campbell. The commissioner from 2011 to 2014, she won the job after she caught Parnell’s eye as a go-getter while working on his staff.
Her qualifications for commissioner were that she was a 31-year-old with a college degree in education, a long family history in the commercial fishing business, and a reputation for having served Parnell and predecessor Palin well. Plus her father, Gary Slaven, was once chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
After Cora came Cotten, a man with limited knowledge of fish and wildlife management. But he knew how to run a commercial purse seiner, once represented Eagle River as a Democrat in the state House of Representatives, served a term as speaker of that body at the end of the 1980s, and could charm the hide off an enraged grizzly bear.
The latter served him well.