By Bob Tkacz
Unlike recent Board of Fisheries appointees from Interior Alaska, Gov. Sean Parnell’s first pick from the region, Michael E. Smith, has years of public policy experience with federal and international fishery management and state legislature. Whether he will apply his knowledge to state fisheries issues for more than a few months depends on a legislative confirmation vote he will face next year after passing through one of the toughest gauntlet in Alaska fish politics: a session on Cook Inlet salmon.
Smith was named to the board on April 23 to replace Janet Woods, the Sarah Palin appointee who quit on March 26. Both are Fairbanks residents. Even in the compressed time frame at the end of this year’s legislative session it appears that Parnell could easily have named Smith to the seat in time for a previously scheduled confirmation vote on April 9 or the end of the session on April 18.
Years ago the legislature moved the start date for a three-year Fish Board term from March to July 1 specifically to give appointees the chance to win confirmation based on their experience and knowledge and before they started angering lawmakers’ constituents with their votes on allocation proposals.
Gov. Parnell, who never interviewed Smith before the formal appointment, gave up that safeguard with his more measured approach to the appointment.
“We opened it up for other Alaskans (to apply). A decision was made. It didn’t make the deadline,” said Sharon Leighow, Parnell’s press secretary.
State law requires a governor to name, by April 1, board members for terms starting on July 1 of a given year. This year two seats were available and Parnell announced the appointments of Claude Webster, the current board chairman, and new member Tom Kluberton, a Talkeetna lodge owner on April 1.
A governor gets 30 days to replace a board member who leaves in mid-term, but after Woods’ March 26 departure many including Fish Board executive director Jim Marcotte expected three names to be announced on April 1.
Smith is a known factor in state fisheries management, but has been passed over for previous board terms. He first applied for a seat during the Murkowski Administration and last in 2009 when Palin chose Woods. Despite giving himself the full 30 days to replace Woods, neither Parnell nor fisheries advisor Cora Campbell talked to Smith who said the only executive office staffer he met was Jason Hooley, director of the Office of Boards and Commissions.
“The director of Office of Boards and Commissions is charged with finding the right candidate. It’s up to the governor to make the ultimate decision,” Leighow said.
If the legislature follows its normal process it will vote on Smith’s confirmation next April, about a month after the Feb. 20-March 5 Fish Board meeting on Cook Inlet salmon and other finfish issues.
“That’s not one I particularly am looking forward to in its complexity and conflicts, but I don’t think there are going to be any surprises,” Smith said when asked, April 29, how he’ll approach that session. He added that his background in salmon management is no secret.
“I’ve been an advocate in the past. I’m well aware enough that I need to put those feelings aside and come to the board in an impartial manner. People know where I come from and I don’t think there’s any surprise that I have been doing the last ten years,” Smith said.
Since 2002, Smith, 52, has been the director of subsistence resources for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, but also worked for the organization from 1985 to ’89 as a local government specialist. From ’89 to 1994 he was a legislative aid to Sens. Lyman Hoffman and John Binkley and Rep. Kay Wallis. He is a member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s Bering Sea Bycatch Working Group” and the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Escapement Goal Review Committee.”
Smith is also involved in the Yukon River annex of the Pacific Salmon Treaty and appears to be on the losing end of a bureaucratic controversy. The TCC has a permanent seat on the Joint Technical Committee, the science advisory committee for the Yukon River Panel, which is the 11-member US/Canadian group that negotiates salmon allocations.
Smith is also one of eight “advisers” to the panel. Advisers represent residents of Alaskan villages on the Yukon but do not vote on decisions. There are no Canadian advisers. Unwritten policy of the Yukon Panel bans advisors from attending JTC meetings to avoid giving individuals an information advantage, but Smith has been using the TCC’s seat on the JTC to get through the door, according to Craig Fleener, US co-chair of the Yukon Panel.
“If an individual can go to the science side he or she could take political muscle into there or science muscle into the other (Panel) meeting,” Fleener said.
He also acknowledged that because the Yukon Panel has not yet adopted formal bylaws Smith’s unique position allows him to attend both sessions. Rules, supported by the US and Canada now being written will keep Smith out of one meeting or the other, but it is not clear whether he will continue in any capacity in the treaty process while serving on the Fish Board.
Smith said he was asked to leave the JTC meeting during the March 2-4 treaty session but declined. “There was some question as to whether or not I could go and a question as to who could make that decision and then there was a huge argument over it between me and staff,” Smith said.
Smith is a subsistence harvester on the Yukon River and has crewed on its commercial fishery but never owned his own permit. His work for the TCC over the past three years has included a range of chinook stock enumeration projects on the Koyukuk and Good Pasture Rivers. “I have a pretty good understanding of how all that data collection works. It can get extremely complex at times,” he said.
Smith said his life in Interior villages since moving to Alaska in 1961 and the decline in Interior River salmon stocks that last year forced closures of subsistence fisheries motivated him to seek a board seat. “Up there we had commercial activity but that has gone away until it’s virtually nonexistent as well,” he added.
Smith also acknowledged the concerns of sport harvesters. “One of the things I have is an understanding of where the sports guys are coming from. I’m a subsistence advocate but that’s also a personal use advocate,” he said.