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Decision to nix Wood-Tikchik's management council draws local shock and concern

The view from the mouth of the Agulawok River, June 7, 2022.
Courtesy of Brian Venua
The view from the mouth of the Agulawok River, June 7, 2022.

The executive order states that eliminating the Wood-Tikchik State Park’s management council is in “the best interests of efficient administration.” It came as one of 12 executive orders sent to the legislature last month.

Bryce Edgmon said the orders are not typical. Edgmon is Region 37’s House Representative, which includes Bristol Bay and Wood-Tikchik State Park.

“Each executive order is tied to removing a board or commission and it seems laborious and time intensive,” he said. “The usual way would be to go through the public process and involve the legislature. But Governor Dunleavy has decided to do it very differently and I think very divisively.”

Eight of Dunleavy’s other orders called for the elimination of boards and councils this year, including the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council.

Wood-Tikchik State Park is the largest state park in the country, spanning about 1.6 million acres. It is also the only one in Alaska with a management council appointed by the governor.

The seven-person council was formed in 1978 and consists of representatives from nearby village and city councils, the region’s Native association and state officials to advise the government. Three members are nominated by the village councils of Koliganek, New Stuyahok and Aleknagik respectively, one member is nominated by Dillingham’s city council and one is nominated by the Bristol Bay Native Association. The council also includes the Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and the Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game.

Cody Larson is the current chair and represents the Bristol Bay Native Association on the council. Larson said the council met the Friday before the executive order was announced but was not given any notice of its elimination.

“We didn’t have it on our radar, so we weren’t able to put it on the meeting agenda at that time,” he said.

Wendy Sailors, a spokesperson for the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, said in an email that as executive orders are confidential until they are issued, the orders were not announced.

Larson said that the council has served as somewhere the park receives input from the public on a range of topics and is a space for users to meet.

“Over the past 45 years the park has been a consistent space for the public to provide input and it has also been in the position to encourage park operations,” Larson said.

Board member Dolores Larson, whose Yup’ik name is Myuuraq, represents the Village of Koliganek. She said she thinks it is important to have representation from around Bristol Bay making up the council.

“We live here,” she said. “We know what goes on in the park as well as the region and I believe it’s really important to have tribal representation.”

She said she is concerned that eliminating the council and transferring the park’s responsibilities solely to the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Game may make the land more vulnerable to development.

“My biggest concern is that the area will be more open to resource development if it’s led by DNR or Fish and Game,” she said. The park is protected and it should remain that way indefinitely.”

In a written statement to KDLG, Larson wrote that transferring the council to the Department of Natural Resources would be a detriment to the region and the park.

“Our local and tribal representation on the current board play a vital role in the management of the state park that reflects cultural and traditional values and the protection of our valuable resources,” Larson wrote.

The Wood-Tikchik State Park Management Council held a meeting on February 1. A draft of the council’s minutes from the meeting says that the Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation's director Ricky Gease stated that public input would be received through a citizen advisory board as in other state parks.

Larson wrote that the proposed board would streamline important processes regarding the park.

“And local and Tribal representation would not be put in the statute if it is transferred to the Department of Natural Resources,” she wrote in her statement to KDLG.

A map showing state mining claims in Southwest Alaska near the park. The claims are in blue. February 2, 2024.
A map showing state mining claims in Southwest Alaska near the park. The claims are in blue. February 2, 2024.

Former Board Chair Robin Samuelson also voiced concern that the land might be more available in connection to mining interests.

“I don’t know why he’s doing it. I don’t know who’s pushing him. But I know that there are mining interests that have filed north of the park,” he said.

Samuelson was on the council for more than a decade.

“The park service and laymen board…we had our problems but we always worked out the problem and we always protected the resources in the park, especially the streams and fish,” he said.

The spokesperson from the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Wendy Sailors, said in an email that any changes to the park’s management plan must go through a public comment period and meetings must be held in affected communities.

KDLG requested a comment from the governor but was referred to the language in the executive order by the Department of Natural Resources.

Representative Edgmon said the news of the elimination came at a busy time.

“There’s a lot of things going on here in the first few days, but it’s not been lost on me and a bunch of other legislators that these executive orders really need to be looked at very closely and hopefully rejected,” he said.

Legislators have sixty days from the order’s introduction to override it, which would require a majority vote against the order in a joint session. The order was introduced January 16.

Correction: The story said the orders were released 'this month.' As they were released in January and this story was released in February, the sentence should have read 'last month.' The change has been made.

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Christina McDermott began reporting for KDLG, Dillingham’s NPR member station, in March 2023. Previously, she worked with KCBX News in San Luis Obispo, California, where she focused on local news and cultural stories. She’s passionate about producing evocative, sound-rich work that informs and connects the public.