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The Best Job in Alaska:
A Conversation with Commissioner Campbell
“I’ve always believed that fish and wildlife are the soul of Alaska. In Alaska there is just a connection to our resources. Whether it’s sport hunting and fishing, wildlife viewing, or the commercial aspects of fishing and tourism, there is this tremendous, direct use relationship. It affects almost every aspect of our lives! If you open a newspaper, any newspaper in the state, and look at the Alaska stories, a sizable percentage will be about fish and game.
Commercial fishing is the largest private employer in the state. And, as beautiful as our scenery is here, with all our glaciers and mountains, I don’t think very many tourists would come to Alaska if it weren’t for the fish and wildlife. A sizable portion of our population eats large amounts of fish and game they’ve harvested themselves and we have 648,000 experts on fish and game management here.”
McKie Campbell’s awe and excitement over Alaska’s fish and wildlife began when he was a boy living in Virginia. Since moving to Alaska in the 70’s, this passion has led to a life centered on working and enjoying these resources.
In June, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with McKie, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Nancy: The Governor appointed you Commissioner just a couple of months ago. Prior to taking this job you were a resource consultant working fewer hours and making significantly more. Dollar signs and time off certainly were not your prime reasons for taking the job – what was your motivation?
McKie: I think it’s the best job in Alaska – to get to be the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game. I worked here years ago as deputy commissioner. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my life to have had a number of good jobs, but day-to-day I enjoyed it more here than any other job I’ve ever done.
Fish and game in Alaska are just so much more important, by orders of magnitude, than they are in any other state, that for me, it naturally follows we should have the best fish and wildlife management agency in the country. I want to help make that happen.
In addition, before I took the job I had the opportunity to have a couple of in-depth discussions with Governor Murkowski. I really appreciated where he seemed to want to go with the department, so that was definitely a factor. I wouldn’t have been interested in taking the job under other circumstances. I’m really appreciative of his support.
Nancy: What do you enjoy most about the job?
McKie: The people and the issues, there are outstanding folks who work for the department and I like all the issues. Sometimes I sit back after a day’s worth of various meetings threshing out issues and such and think, “they’re paying me for this - it’s a great deal.” I do really think it’s the best job in Alaska.
Nancy: Where are the issues that you are currently threshing out?
McKie: I’ve always said that managing fish and wildlife by themselves is fairly simple. It’s managing them in connection with the people that’s hard and really the heart of what we do.
The greatest friction areas always occur around the large urban areas. That’s where you have the most people competing for limited resources. So, I think we can do a great deal to reduce friction between urban and rural Alaska over fish and wildlife issues through the Advisory Committees around the state . I want to work with the Fairbanks Advisory Committees and the Anchorage Advisory Committees and make sure we’re responding and balancing the needs of all advisory committees all around the state.
Nancy: What are some of the headline issues or projects that you are involved with and want to carry forward?
McKie: There are a number of developing fisheries. For instance, the geoduck fishery and mariculture, which were well underway when I got here, that I want to make sure we carry forward.
I want to make sure that we are getting adequate funds to conduct good science connected with wolf control. Alaska has been wrestling with wolf control since it’s been a state. The one thing that we’re absolutely sure of is that you have to have good science to guide your decisions. Otherwise, you’re in real trouble whatever your course.
I’m spending a lot of time with the Cook Inlet Salmon Management Team. Cook Inlet is an area where there is intense conflict over allocation of fish among and between sport fishermen, personal use, and commercial fisheries. To the greatest extent possible, we are trying to minimize surprises. We want everyone involved to know in advance, by going to our website and other means, “Okay if this happens, this is what the department is going to do.” We’re really going to try to not surprise each other during the season in order to minimize conflicts.
I want to make sure that during the council (North Pacific Fisheries Management Council) process we continue to exert Alaska’s influence in this national forum. We have essentially six votes that represent Alaskan interests and we need to make sure that we are unified.
Nancy: Do you have other specific projects within Fish and Game that you would like to see accomplished?
McKie: I’m very aware I may only be here 18 months and I am constantly aware of the drumbeat of that time counting down. So, I’m looking at what things can we accomplish or get firmly on the road in that amount of time.
When I worked here before there was never a day that I wasn’t proud to work at ADF&G. That has certainly been true since I’ve been back as well. I want all of our employees to feel that way. We are working on pay issues and doing what we can to make this a better place to work. I want to make sure that good science is recognized, awarded, and appreciated. I also want to make sure that I am a good ambassador for the department within the administration and to the legislature. All of it comes back to the fact that we should be the best fish and game agency in the country.
Nancy: How do you think the department can better serve Alaskans?
McKie: We as a department can reach out to Alaskans on a lot of different levels. We need to reach out to an increasingly urbanized population and legislature and make sure they continue to realize the importance of fish and wildlife resources to Alaska’s economy and culture.
I want to make sure that we reach out to new constituencies, but in doing so don’t neglect our traditional constituencies – hunters and fishermen who have traditionally supported the department through license fees and in all kinds of endeavors. I think there are some in those groups that have felt a little abandoned. I think we need to work on that.
We are also starting a program with the University to reach out and recruit smart kids, particularly in rural schools, for careers in the department. We would like to be able to offer students summer jobs, and through the universities, offer scholarships in fisheries and wildlife management. Right now, an awful lot of the rural villages have limited sets of career opportunities. It would be great to have these bright young kids aspiring to grow up to work for Fish and Game. I think that could be really terrific for both the small communities and the department on a whole variety of levels.
I always believe in hiring the best person you can for the job, but I also believe you can train people to become the best person for a job. People living in rural Alaska are often dependent upon and have a very close, traditional, and developing relationship with their resources. It makes sense for them to be managing those resources and working with the department.
Nancy: On a personal level, how do fish and wildlife resources fit into your life?
McKie: When I was 10 or so, I lived in Virginia and lived for fishing. I subscribed to “Outdoor Life” and I remember the cover photo for an Alaska fishing story with a man holding up a big grayling. That just seemed like the most exotic neat thing in the world to me. When I came up here in the late 70s for a visit I said, “This is it, I’m staying.”
I enjoy both fishing and hunting and from the beginning I’ve always been fascinated by commercial fishing. In fact, on her first visit to Alaska, I remember showing my wife-to-be the boat harbor in Ketchikan. It was a cold day right before Christmas and with great enthusiasm, I hauled her up and down the docks showing her bow pickers and stern pickers, purse seiners, and trollers. She was a good sport for quite a while, but eventually pointed out that it was in the low 30’s and blowing sleet sideways and perhaps we could go to the restaurant overlooking the harbor where I could point out the boats from there.
I’ve always been aware of what a diverse benefit to our economy commercial fishing provides. Oil is certainly much bigger, but oil is this almost monolithic force, whereas the economic benefits from commercial fishing are spread throughout our state. Often, fishing is vital in small communities where it is hardest to bring in other forms of industry and development to the economy. That’s why it’s incredibly important.
So, on professional level and on a personal level, Alaska’s resources are very important to me. I can’t even imagine Alaska without salmon, without eagles, without bears. It’s a very special and important aspect of our lives. It’s why we live here. I said earlier that not many tourists would come here; well I don’t think many of us would stay here either if it weren’t for the fish and wildlife. Some of that’s changing as we increasingly have urban centers, but again, in orders of magnitude, Alaska is very different from any other state in the union.
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