I read with great interest Amanda Coyne’s story, “Did Alaska Senate candidate Bob Bell break law while serving on Board of Game?,” primarily because Bell, if elected, would represent my part of Anchorage in the state Senate. Even before seeing that story, I had great concerns about Bell’s qualifications for the job, about his integrity.
Right up front, I’ll say that I strongly support Bell’s opponent, Hollis French, and I do so for many reasons. These include his lead role on the Senate’s bipartisan coalition, his strong opposition to Gov. Sean Parnell’s oil-industry tax breaks (which I too consider a no-strings-attached giveaway that’s in the best interests of corporations, not Alaska), and his position on the Pebble Mine (which, according to a recent Point/Counterpoint in the Anchorage Daily News, he does not and will not support until and unless he sees “a project plan convincing me beyond doubt that Bristol Bay is protected forever”).
I also greatly appreciate French’s progressive stance on wildlife management issues.
Wildlife management happens to be a special interest of mine, as both writer and wildlife advocate. Since he was first elected to the Alaska Senate in 2002, French has been among the few legislators who’ve pushed for more science-based and ethical management of all our state’s wildlife, while opposing such inhumane practices as the snaring of bears, including sows and cubs.
Bell, on the other hand, has been a staunch advocate of Alaska’s increasingly extreme predator-control program, even when such “control” -- that is, killing -- veers into areas that many people would consider unethical and inhumane, including the gassing of wolf pups in dens and the aforementioned trapping of bears. But my concerns about his wildlife politics go far beyond his predator-control advocacy and speak to his troubling behavior and attitudes as a public official, while serving on the Board of Game.
Before continuing, I should mention here that I don’t personally know Bob Bell. In many areas of his life he may be a decent person, an upstanding citizen, though I admit some uneasiness about his close ties to the oil and gas industry.
Where I did get to know Bell was at Board of Game (BOG) meetings. And what I witnessed there disturbed me greatly. It often appeared that Bell had failed to do his homework. In both his comments and his votes, he showed himself to be ill informed on many issues. Or he ignored the facts, a strange behavior for someone who recently boasted in the Anchorage Daily News, “I am an engineer and I make decisions based on facts, not emotion.”
All too often Bell’s actions suggested that he represented narrow interests -- primarily sport hunters and recreational trappers who live in the state’s urban and suburban areas -- rather than the larger public good or the wildlife that he and other BOG members claim to stand for. In a 2009 opinion piece, Bell pointedly claimed, “I represent the game populations of this state,” not any group of people. (His choice of “game” rather than wildlife reveals his utilitarian bias.) Yet many of his actions clearly showed that not to be true.
No deliberations better demonstrated Bell’s misplaced priorities -- and his shortcomings -- than his stubborn determination to allow the trapping of wolverines in Chugach State Park, despite strong evidence (gathered by state biologists) that such trapping would threaten the local wolverine population.
In March 2009, after the BOG had voted to restore protections to the park’s wolverines because of intense opposition by the public and the state’s Division of Parks, I wrote a piece for the Alaska Dispatch, “Wildlife politics trump conservation, again,” in which I examined both the BOG’s incomprehensible behavior, and Bell’s stubborn refusal to admit his earlier mistake and instead blame everyone else for what he deemed a “problem.” My entire commentary can be found here, but I’d like to highlight a few of the comments I made in that piece. First, despite a clear and thorough presentation by Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff that demonstrated the local wolverine population was in danger of being overharvested, Bell continued to maintain, “there is no conservation concern. You can interpret the data either way.” He also insisted, “I think this issue was blown way out of proportion,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
As I noted then, Bell had spoken like the true politician that he is. His comments also provided valuable insight into the state’s management of wildlife. In most instances, board members can interpret the data just about any damn way they want to. All the talk about using the best available science is largely smoke and mirrors. You take the surveys and other data and fit them to your own political agenda. Bell and his like-minded allies on the BOG did this time after time (all too often, this is still the board’s way of doing business).
I should add that at the same 2009 meeting, Bell stubbornly pushed for the hunting of trophy bull moose in Chugach State Park’s Hillside area, again ignoring strong testimony of Fish and Game staff that such a hunt was an awful idea. Fortunately, other board members opposed the hunt, even those who usually jump at opportunities to expand sport hunting.
Some might wonder what Bell’s actions on the BOG have to do with his Senate campaign. To me they provide clear and abundant evidence that Bell, when placed in a position of public power, performed badly. He consistently showed either an inability to fully comprehend the issues, or that he didn’t care about the full consequences of his actions, or that he represented his own narrow constituency, even when circumstances dictated otherwise. Put more simply (as I did in my 2009 commentary), it’s hard to say whether he was ignorant, ill informed, or in self-denial on the matters before him. I worry it may have been all of the above.
Given Bell’s documented close ties to industry, I fear he wouldn’t serve the best interests of Alaskans, if elected to the Senate. The last thing our Legislature, and more generally our state government, needs is an apologist for the oil and gas industry.
My worries deepen with the new revelations about Bell’s participation in the musk ox hunting fiasco, as reported by the Alaska Dispatch. Again it appears that Bell is in denial. Even worse, it seems he may be ethically challenged. By his own admission, Bell thought that state regulations covering the horns of musk ox killed in Northwest Alaska were “stupid.” But that doesn’t give him, or anyone, the right to try and circumvent those laws.
That he apparently tried to do as a member of the BOG, which establishes the state’s hunting rules and regulations, is especially appalling.
Bell’s argument that the law is somehow vague or “gray” doesn’t pass the red-face test. If in doubt, he should never have risked breaking the law, especially given his position. Beyond that, it’s clear that Bell and his hunting buddies were trying to find a way to get around the law.
It’s refreshing that, first, state biologist Tony Gorn stood up to the trio and, second, that state trooper Jay Sears has made it clear that if the men are found guilty of “skirting their own rules and regulations” they will be “prosecuted for scheming to defraud the state out of its horns.”
Even if Bell is found innocent of any crime because of a technicality, his intent seems clear: to circumvent existing regulations for personal gain. This is not the sort of behavior we want from a state senator. This is not the sort of behavior that should be tolerated from anyone who serves in the public arena, or who asks for our vote to do so.
Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications (both traditional and online) and is the author of 13 books, most recently Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness and Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness, the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He has closely followed and written about Alaska's wildlife politics since the mid-1980s.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.