About a month ago, former Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack abruptly signed off on a draft management plan for Kachemak Bay State Park. After Mack left the job and a new governor was sworn in, DNR rescinded the plan. It said it will release the next version of the plan for public comment before it’s officially adopted.
DNR’s handling of the process under a new governor could revive a long-running debate over a commercial salmon hatchery’s operations in the park.
Two days after November’s big earthquake, former natural resources commissioner Mack was in his Anchorage office to sign off on the draft management plan.
The document applies to Kachemak Bay State Park and other recreation areas on the southern Kenai Peninsula. It’s a big deal because it dictates the recreational and commercial activities allowed in the park.
The move was not only unexpected, but it was odd.
DNR’s offices are closed on weekends and the building itself was shut down because of the earthquake. It was also just one day before Gov. Mike Dunleavy was sworn into office.
Mack said he signaled his intention to sign the plan beforehand. He also argues his signature didn’t officially put the plan in place.
“There would have been an opportunity for the public to actually consider what we had put out. Most of the changes, if any, at that point would have been technical or legal changes,” he said.
Mack said his signature moved the process to what’s called the “intent to adopt” phase, which allows the public to comment on the plan one last time.
However, DNR spokesperson Monica Alvarez said that’s not true.
“When a commissioner signs a plan like that, he is in fact adopting that plan,” Alvarez said. “What happens is there is an opportunity – there’s 20 days after the plan is issued, adopted – for the public to be able to request reconsideration on his action.”
Mack’s replacement as commissioner, Corri Feige, rescinded Mack’s actions later that week. The new administration said it doesn’t know why Mack signed the plan.
And despite questions about why Mack signed on the dotted line, what the plan could look like when it’s finished is up in the air. Dunleavy has sharply different views about salmon management than the previous governor, Bill Walker.
Walker’s administration was seen as more sympathetic to commercial fishermen, and the plan Mack signed would have granted flexibility to Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association.
The group, funded by commercial fishermen, has a contentious pink salmon release site at the head of Tutka Bay, a popular tourist destination in the state park.
Dunleavy is more aligned with sport fishing advocates, and those advocates adamantly oppose the hatchery’s plans to relocate some of its production to the head of the bay. Opponents say it will disrupt that section of the park and that the fish in the net pens could cause water quality issues.
They also worry that the association could push to further increase its operations in the park.
“We think there are conservation concerns with that and wanted a more thorough review process, you know, open and transparent process with DNR,” Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said. “We're confident that that's going to occur moving forward.”
The management plan Mack signed does allow the hatchery association to continue using its remote release site at the head of Tutka Bay. It placed the net pens there for the first time in 2018 following several years of controversy. The pens were later returned to the hathcery after high winds blew them across the bay.
However, Cook Inlet Aquaculture just applied to renew its permit with DNR.
Mack approved the association’s initial permit, and he maintains that the hatchery and the release site are compatible with the park. While he acknowledges that Dunleavy is more aligned with the sport fishing industry, he said that wasn’t a factor in his decision to sign the plan.
“So there was a lot of inputs to the process and it had been a very long process,” Mack explained. “In my opinion, it had been very well vetted publicly, and there was plenty of input at that point to make a decision.”
Many stakeholders say Mack rushed the process, including Cook Inlet Aquaculture Executive Director Dean Day.
Even though the park plan Mack signed would have cleared one major hurdle the hatchery association currently faces, Day doesn’t necessarily assume that DNR’s new leadership will do anything different.
“It's something that's definitely an area of concern,” Day said. “We have to know what the outcome is going to be and then we can we can go from there.”
Cook Inlet Aquaculture hopes to have its permit renewed by the spring when it plans to move the net pens into Tutka Bay, but the timeline for that and the Kachemak Bay State Park management plan’s final approval is unclear.
“Often when we have a new administration, they may have different ideas about how to address things and that remains to be seen both here at DNR and Fish and Game,” Alvarez added.
She said pending any changes to the process, DNR hopes to release the final draft of the management plan in the next three months.