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Legislature cuts off Alaska Moose Federation

Craig Medred
When the Alaska Legislature was in its end-of-session, budgetary scramble earlier this month, the state-subsidized Alaska Moose Federation was at Arctic Man race using its state-funded equipment to build a trail for the competition. Courtesy Arctic Man | Photo by Mitch Lyman

When the Alaska Legislature was in its end-of-session, budgetary scramble earlier this month, the Alaska Moose Federation -- which has to date managed to fund itself almost solely through state appropriations -- was at the Arctic Man Classic ski and snowmachine race far, far to the north using its state-funded equipment to build a trail for that competition.

Some are now wondering if joining the party at what has been called "Alaska's motorhead Woodstock" was a good idea at a time when funding for the organization was in big trouble in Juneau. By the time the session ended, the AMF's grant requests would be gone from the capital appropriations budget.

Moose Federation director Gary Olsen rationalized AMF's participation at Arctic Man this way in an online forum: "Bringing up the snow cats really helps us educate the public how these cats make diversionary snow trails to enable moose to walk away from highway and railroad corridors."

Whether the public now has a different view of the activities of the Moose Federation is hard for anyone to know, but the Legislature clearly sees things differently. Having given more than $2 million to the Moose Federation over the past several years, lawmakers this session cut off funding.

Exactly why is unclear. Olson did not return Alaska Dispatch's phone calls.

Fuel for the Arctic Man work was paid for by the race, which is sponsored in large part by Tesoro, a company that operates gas stations in Alaska. Arctic Man also earns an unreported profit off the always-busy "beer tent" at the event, which annually attracts thousands to the Hoodoo Mountains for a weekend party that caught the attention of the "National Geographic Channel."

National Geo films the scripted reality show titled "Alaska State Troopers." The channel promoted one segment of that show this way: "Arctic Man Patrol: Hundreds of intoxicated people converge in one snow-covered place for Alaska's extreme sporting event, Arctic Man." "Troopers" is among the so-called "reality TV" shows that have raised questions in Juneau as to how the state is coming to be perceived around the country. The portrait of the 49th state painted by the plethora of Alaska "reality" shows now airing is, without a doubt, unique.

Whether hooking up with Arctic Man was a good idea or a bad one for the Moose Federation is debatable. On one hand, the event attracts lots of folks likely to support the organization's stated goal: "Grow more moose." On the other hand, with the Legislature talking about budget constraint, spending money earmarked to "grow more moose" to promote a big party might not look so good.

"I'm a snowmachiner and Arctic Man fan, but I'm not sure that expenditure fits in the capital improvement project (CIP) grant request for 2013," said Tom Anderson, a local talk show host and managing partner for Optima Public Relations.

A friend of Olson's, Anderson noted the Moose Federation has in the past enjoyed strong support from lawmakers in both the state House and Senate, and added that "the executive director presumably justifies and accounts for spending, so in terms of PR, I'd say transparency and justification will avoid any sense of impropriety."

Whether Olson still has the support he once enjoyed in a legislature gone from free-spending to cost-conscious is unclear.

"They didn't have a champion in the Legislature this year," said Wayne Regelin of Juneau, a former deputy director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a sometimes critic of the Moose Federation. Regelin, like other critics, said he is all for growing more moose in Alaska, but the methods the Moose Federation has suggested, such as capturing and raising orphan calves, cost a lot of money and yield little in the way of long-term results.

"Gary Olsen came down with four or five of his people, and they lobbied hard," Regelin said. "They wanted $1.7 million. They spent $24,000 and hired a lobbyist." But, he said, the Legislature appeared "more leery" of spending money on growing moose than in years past.

"The only other thing I know is that some other groups felt that if the Legislature was going to spend a million dollars picking up dead moose in the highway (another Moose Federation proposal), they'd like to bid on that," he added.

The Moose Federation had applied for a $400,000 grant -- what essentially amounted to a sole-source contract -- to salvage road-kill moose along state roads. The job has traditionally been done by volunteers. The Federation argued it could do it faster, more efficiently and in a safer manner.

Regelin said he found that request for state funding -- along with requests for $300,000 to raise orphan moose and $1.5 million to create more moose habitat -- a little ironic.

"When I was still working (for Fish and Game), Gary was down here, and (Frank) Murkowski was governor, and Gary swore all he wanted was support," Regelin said. "He said he didn't want money."

Olson got Murkowski's support. For a long time, the former governor was listed on the organization's "advisory board" among a who's who of Alaska politicians. The advisory board no longer functions, but the Federation is going strong. It is continuing to seek donations to grow more moose. You can donate at 
GrowMoreMoose.org.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com