By Jenny Neyman
Unless Gov. Bill Walker finds a third time the charm, the Kenai Peninsula will not have a voice on the Alaska Board of Fisheries, as the appointment of Robert Ruffner was voted down in a joint session of the Legislature held Sunday.
Gov. Walker’s first pick, Roland Maw, of Kasilof, withdrew from the nomination amid allegations of falsifying residency status in Montana. Walker then nominated Ruffner, a Soldotna conservationist and outgoing head of the Kenai Watershed Forum.
“Well I am disappointed, there’s no doubt about that. But I am really proud of how I represented myself as a resident of the peninsula,” Ruffner said. “I’m just looking forward to finding the next niche where I think I can work toward helping the state. And I’m sure I will find that. Life goes on.”
Though the vote failed 30 to 29, only six legislators explained their stance in the session Sunday — four speaking in favor of Ruffner, including Kenai Rep. Kurt Olson and Soldotna Sen. Peter Micchice, and two against.
Chugiak Sen. Bill Stoltze and Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski laid out a case against Ruffner’s appointment. Stoltze iterated his concern that Ruffner would not be supportive enough of personal-use fisheries.
“I’m very worried about the balance of access to personal use. It’s not just personal-use fishing, but the access and the policies that can be set. It’s one of most egalitarian activities we have in this state, where the poorest of the newest Americans, our immigrants communities, can participate and put protein in their freezers,” Stoltze said.
During his confirmation hearings, Ruffner spoke of his support of personal-use fisheries, and said that dip netting is the only way he provides salmon for his family. Stoltze said that Ruffner made contradictory statements outside the hearings, and he and Wielechowski noted that the Southcentral Alaska Dipnetters Association withdrew their initial support of Ruffner’s nomination, though Stoltze did not specify what those contradictory statements had been.
Ruffner said he’d been asked about prioritizing dip-net fisheries. And while he recognizes the importance of dip netting, he said that his reading of the state Constitution doesn’t allow for prioritizing one fishery over another.
Upsetting the balance of the board was another charge against Ruffner. As Wielechowski noted, every governor before the current administration has maintained Gov. Wally Hickel’s decision in the 1990s to balance the board with three sportfishing seats and three commercial fishing seats.
Ruffner was characterized as having commercial fishing leanings, while his appointment was to a sportfishing seat vacated by Karl Johnstone.
“It breaks up a tenuous balance that has been in place for decades, a balance between sport, commercial and subsistence,” Stoltze said.
Ruffner has no history working for, nor serving on the board of any commercial fishing group — nor sport or personal-use or any other fishing group, for that matter. But he does have experience as executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum in working with fishery groups, primarily in matters of improving fish habitat, like working to combat invasive species, improving water quality in the Kenai River and fixing culverts that block anadromous fish passage.
He describes himself as being fish first, rather than any particular fishery. During confirmation hearings, he was asked about restricting commercial fishing if escapement goals weren’t being met, and he stated unequivocally that he would.
But he also said something that struck Wielechowski as not recognizing the current allocation of fish in the state.
“When I hear Mr. Ruffner say, ‘Well, everyone needs to bear the burden when there’s down years,’” Wielechowski said. “And my thought is, ‘You’re getting 98.2 percent of the fish. What more do you want to take from the personal-use fisheries and from the sport fish?’”
Anchorage Rep. Les Gara applauded the appointment of someone to represent fish first, rather than a fishery group.
“Mr. Ruffner has spent much of his life protecting the habitat that is necessary so we have healthy fish runs in the state. He hasn’t done that for sportfishermen or commercial fishermen or subsistence fishermen, he’s done it for everybody. If we don’t have healthy habitat, we don’t have fish,” Gara said.
Maintaining a balance on the Board of Fish is a practice without legal basis, as it’s not called for in state statute or the Constitution. Rather, as Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes pointed out, the statute directs the governor to appoint someone on the basis of interest in public affairs, good judgment, knowledge, and ability in the field of action of the board, and with a view to providing diversity of interest and points of view in the membership.
“I believe Mr. Ruffner fits into that category expertly,” Stutes said. “… We need to stand up and do the right thing, and that would be appoint Mr. Ruffner.”
Micciche lauded Ruffner’s ability to find common ground between opposing parties on even controversial issues, and noted a diverse base of support.
“He’s a consensus builder, he brings people together that often do not like each other. He’s always prepared for the task at hand, he listens carefully, acts thoughtfully and makes well-considered, well-informed decisions that are best for the consensus and Alaskans as a unit, not as a ‘us versus them,’” Micciche said.
Micciche addressed the concerns raised by his fellow legislators, saying that Ruffner would be supportive of dip netting and improving the health of struggling northern district salmon runs.
“So it comes down to this, when all the other charges have been proven to be unfounded, Robert becomes a victim to five numbers,” Micciche said. “Those five numbers are his zip code. He lives in the wrong place. And when we’ve come to the point of where we vilify people because of their zip code, we’re not looking out for what’s best for fish, we’re not looking out for what’s best for fisheries.”
Ruffner said he feels like he’s been mischaracterized, and that arguments about where he lives and what fishery interest he was supposed to represent were beside what should have been the point.
“My opinion is that if we really would have followed the law and the statutes that are governing the qualifications and the selection criteria, then I would have been confirmed. But instead these ancillary issues to the qualifications kept coming up, about I don’t live in Anchorage and people felt like that was really important, and I’m not a sportfishing enthusiast enough for certain special-interest groups that stepped out and started speaking against me,” Ruffner said.
“And so legislators have to weigh those things and make a decision. I just wish they would have listened a little bit more closely to what I actually said because the testimony offered against me was really pretty contradictory to what I actually said on the record. So that’s the part that’s disappointing,” he said.
With Ruffner’s confirmation drowned in the Legislature, Gov. Walker will have to make a third pick for the seat.