David Strong testifies at a Senate committee hearing against the elimination of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council. Just one public commenter wrote in favor of eliminating the council. (Screenshot from Gavel Alaska)

Lawmakers heard testimony from nearly a dozen Haines residents, and got 50 written comments during a hearing on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to eliminate the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council.

Just one commenter supported the elimination of the council, which was established in 1982 to provide local knowledge and weigh in on management of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

Ricky Gease, Director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, framed the elimination of the advisory council as a decision that could make management more efficient.

He said the parks division could create a regional citizen’s advisory board instead of the council – one that would cover all state parks in the area and not just the eagle preserve. Gease said the state has about 20,000 acres in different parks around Haines that don’t get the same kind of public feedback and comment as the eagle preserve because its advisory council focuses just on the preserve.

“Anytime there’s change — it’s tough, right, because ‘this isn’t how we did it, this is how we do it.’ And anytime there’s change sometimes it’s difficult to recognize what the benefits may be,” Gease said.

In this case, Gease said his department could get vacancies on a board filled much more quickly. He noted that the last time the advisory council tried to meet in 2022 it wasn’t able to reach a quorum to conduct business.

But others in the hearing pointed out that the group wasn’t able to reach a quorum because three of the four seats the governor is supposed to appoint are sitting vacant and have been for some time.

Many people who pushed back against the governor’s order framed it as an issue of local control.

Kimberley Strong, Tribal Council President of Chilkat Indian Village, echoed that sentiment. She said when the council was formed more than 40 years ago, the original proposal was to create a national wildlife refuge.

The tribal government opposed that idea, favoring instead a local council where it would have a seat and a say in how the land is being managed.

“If the federal government came in and told us how we’re going to run things in Alaska, there’s a big pushback by everybody for that,” she said.

Strong suggested that Haines-area state parks could be added to the council’s oversight, rather than eliminating the council and creating an entirely new group.

Kaaxúxgu Joe Nelson spoke on behalf of Sealaska Corporation which, along with the Chilkat Indian Village and the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, publicly opposed the loss of the advisory council.

All three wrote that the loss of the advisory council, which includes two seats for local tribes would mean that no advisory body with Alaska Native voices would be involved in decision-making on land that Chilkat and Chilkoot Tlingit rely on heavily for subsistence activities.

“I’m all about efficiency and alignment,” Nelson said. “But if that efficiency and alignment doesn’t start with the knowledge that has been there for thousands of years, then it’s going to start over.

Dunleavy’s executive order eliminating the council was one of a dozen he issued in early January.

The Legislature has 60 days to undo those actions; many commenters asked lawmakers to meet in a joint session of the House and Senate to overturn the order.

Correction: This story previously misspelled Chilkat Indian Village Tribal Council President Kimberley Strong’s name.