Robert Ruffner finally reached a board of fish on Saturday.
After being nominated to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Board of Fisheries in March, passing through several confirmation hearings only to fail to be appointed by a 30-29 vote at a joint congressional session in April, Ruffner’s was awarded a collection of plastic toy fish bolted to a slab of wood on Saturday.
The satirical award, given to him by the Kenai Watershed Forum —the Soldotna-based conservation non-profit Ruffner has led since 1997, was one of many presented to Ruffner at Kenai’s Triumvirate Theatre.
Members of the watershed forum, along with local politicians, administrators and fellow conservationists, gathered to bid Ruffner goodbye as he steps down from the director’s position after almost 20 years.
The skits, stories, speeches and songs with which the audience praised Ruffner’s leadership and conservation work — and ribbed him for his sometimes less-than-sharp outfits and the long hair he wore in the past — came as a surprise to Ruffner himself, who arrived at the event unaware that it would be an evening in his honor.
He sat to one side of the Triumvirate Theatre’s stage in an armchair flanked by upright kayaks and backed with painted cut-out fish while a series of speakers came to a podium on his right.
State Senator Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, who worked with Ruffner both as a senator and in his former position as mayor of Soldotna, praised Ruffner as a consensus-maker, saying he had been able to “make people who normally say nasty things about each others’ mothers work together.”
Despite not taking an active role in Cook Inlet fishery politics prior to his Board of Fish nomination, Micciche said Ruffner persuaded various interest groups to support Kenai Watershed Forum initiatives such as the annual Kenai River Festival in Soldotna Creek Park and a hydrocarbon emissions study that encouraged state regulations against the use of older two-stroke engines, which tend to emit greater levels of unburnt fuel into the water.
Soldotna Chamber of Commerce President Ryan Kapp said Ruffner was a great communicator and “the only person (he) knew who could make 50 people attend the dedication of a culvert,” a reference to the watershed forum’s passable culverts program, which replaced older culverts beneath local roads with ones designed to be more friendly to the anadromous fish that swam through them. Kapp said he envied Ruffner’s persuasive talents and asked if he’d like a new job at Kapp’s business, Jumpin’ Junction, a bounce equipment rental establishment.
The joking returned frequently to Ruffner’s failed Board of Fish nomination. The night’s skits concluded with one in which Ruffner played himself, reenacting a satirical imagining of the congressional confirmation hearing. Mock-Congress members Kapp and Rick Koch (Kenai’s city manager) criticized Ruffner for, among other sins, lacking the magical power to create more salmon by killing them.