So much for public process… and for honesty.
Ricky Gease, director of Alaska’s state parks, doesn’t seem to value either.
Speaking to Chugach State Park’s Citizens’ Advisory Board (CAB) on Sept. 9, Gease assured its members that he would wait until after the board’s Oct. 14 meeting before making any decision about a proposed black bear hunt in the park’s McHugh Creek drainage. He also implied that the board’s stance on the hunt would inform his own decision.
It turns out that was a lie. Without telling anyone on park staff or the CAB, Gease went ahead and approved the controversial hunt—a hunt that the park’s superintendent, Kurt Hensel, has opposed, and one that the CAB refused to consider without further discussions and public input.
As board chair Rosa Meehan succinctly told Gease at that meeting, “We’re being hit with something cold; I don’t want to be pushed into a hasty decision.”
Meehan also reminded Gease and others in attendance that the CAB had already opposed two proposals for new black bear hunts inside the park. With Gease now suddenly pushing the board to accept a more “restrictive” hunt that he framed as a compromise, Meehan talked about the need for transparency.“I’d like to get more feedback; we need to reach out to other members of the public. If this goes forward, I want a robust discussion of how it affects other users,” Meehan said.
Among those present at that Sept. 9 meeting, I listened to Gease clearly signal his willingness to wait, even if that meant delaying the hunt a full year., assuming that it happened at all.
I, and nearly everyone else in the room, left the meeting certain that some spirited discussions would take place before any final decision would be made.
A week or so later, despite all his assurances otherwise and without consulting anyone connected to the park, Gease approved the hunt, so that the Department of Fish and Game could add it to the 2020 hunting regulation booklet.
Here I’ll digress and provide some context for readers who’d like the bigger picture.
The hunting issue surfaced last winter, when the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee proposed two new black bear hunts in Chugach State Park to the Alaska Board of Game (BOG). The group’s stated rationale: to “provide additional black bear hunting opportunities in Unit 14C (which encompasses the park).” This despite the fact that some 80 percent of Chugach State Park is already open to black bear hunting.
To make matters worse, the proposed hunts would occur in two of the park’s most popular recreational areas, the Campbell Creek and McHugh Creek drainages, between Sept. 5 and May 31. Such hunts would inevitably create conflicts with recreational groups that have long histories in those valleys, particularly hikers, backpackers, wildlife watchers, mountain runners, and possibly even skiers.
Right from the start, Hensel questioned the need for new hunts. The park’s superintendent did some research and the more he learned the more certain he became that they were a bad idea:.
“I’m convinced there’s absolutely no reason to open new hunts,” Hensel said. “In my view they’re in direct conflict with park purposes. I’m trying to represent the park, and the park has nothing to gain from them; it would be a no-win situation.”
After lengthy and vigorous discussions at two winter meetings, Chugach State Park’s citizens advisory board essentially agreed with Hensel’s reasoning. board chair Rosa Meehan sent a letter to the Game Board, making it clear that CAB members opposed the proposed hunts by substantial margins and explained the rationale for their opposition.
The letter also noted that CAB decisions are guided by the five primary reasons Chugach State Park was established. Among those purposes was “to provide areas for the public display of wildlife.” There is nothing, in those five purposes, that mentions hunting (or trapping) opportunities. In other words, wildlife viewing should take precedence over the killing of animals that inhabit the park.
Given its record over the past couple of decades, it probably should come as no surprise that the BOG chose to ignore the CAB and park staff’s opposition, and voted to approve the bear hunts (albeit with some added restrictions).
The Game Board’s decision naturally upset Hensel and many members of the park’s CAB. Still, Hensel had one final card to play that would trump the BOG’s decision: the newly approved hunts are in areas closed to the discharge of firearms, because of public safety concerns.
Furthermore, both the statute delegating management responsibilities within Chugach State Park and the park’s management plan make it clear that when there are conflicts, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game “shall cooperate” with park managers.
In short, Hensel could simply refuse to issue any black bear hunting permits, whatever the BOG decided. And if were up to him, that’s what he would do.
If only it were that simple. But of course, politics came into play.
Enter Ricky Gease, appointed the director of Alaska’s Division of State Parks by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. During the summer, Gease helped to arrange a closed-door meeting to seek some resolution to the conflicting priorities. Among the participants were Hensel, Gease, BOG chair Ted Spraker, the state’s local wildlife manager, Dave Battle, and Eddie Grasser, director of the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation.
Besides the request for increased hunting opportunities, the men discussed other purported reasons for additional black bear hunts in Chugach State Park, namely that they would help to lower bear-human conflicts in Anchorage; and that they would somehow address the heartbreaking death of a teenaged hill runner, killed on Bird Ridge by a black bear in 2017 (no matter that Fish and Game staff killed three innocent black bears in the days immediately following that tragedy, before finally finding and killing the “suspect” animal they’d been seeking).
Ultimately, the group agreed that neither of those additional arguments had any merit.
At that meeting, the participants reached a compromise “solution.” Instead of the two hunts with expansive seasons, Gease, Spraker and Grasser agreed to try a more restrictive, “experimental” hunt, to be conducted for one month (October) in the McHugh Creek drainage. Only a handful of permits would be issued for the hunt, which would open in 2020. The results of that limited hunt would determine whether it might be expanded in both the McHugh and Campbell Creek drainages.
Hensel was a notable dissenter. He has continued to oppose any new bear hunt because he’s convinced it’s not in the best interests of the park and doesn’t meet its reasons for being, especially with so much hunting opportunity already existing.
Gease made his pitch for the more restrictive hunt at the CAB’s September meeting and ended with an appeal to consider approving it, either then at or a future meeting. He didn’t say whether he’d abide by the board’s decision.
It struck me as an odd—and, to be honest, maddening—thing, that Gease would take the BOG’s position and lobby for the hunt rather than support the park’s superintendent and the stance already taken by the CAB. Their perspectives couldn’t be clearer: NO to more black bear hunts.
Now Gease has gone beyond simple lobbying for hunters and done something inexcusable, by ignoring his assurances to the CAB and acting secretly on his own. It appears Gease has a penchant for doing things behind closed doors, out of public view.
His actions also raise questions of trustworthiness when other controversial issues arise and must be addressed, as they inevitably will. Can advisory boards—and the public—take Gease at his word when he’s shown his willingness to be deceptive even in a very public forum?
Already there’s been some talk about what actions might be taken by the pubic, including the possibility of demanding his resignation for such dishonest and, I would argue, unethical behavior.
For now, I would simply urge concerned Alaskans, especially those who recreate in Chugach State Park and love Anchorage’s “backyard wilderness,” to contact Gease (email@example.com, 269-8700)—and Gease’s boss, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige (firstname.lastname@example.org)—to register your alarm and request that Gease at least reconsider his action and allow the CAB and the public to participate in any actions going forward.
To end, I’ll note that I love Alaska’s State Parks system deeply and have no desire to enter an adversarial relationship with its director. But when someone in a position of authority abuses his power, he must be held accountable and, when possible, make amends to those he has wronged.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Bears” and “Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler’s Guide to Alaska’s State Parks.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.