The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY DAVE ATCHESON
Throughout history, salmon have been part of a David versus Goliath struggle, but unlike the biblical parable, the fish have mostly been on the losing end, first in Europe and later in the continental United States. Fortunately, Alaska continues as one of the few remaining strongholds of wild salmon left on the planet, thanks mostly to its remote location and due to a few key changes in law made at statehood. Many of us worry, however, that without proper protections and updates to antiquated laws, that all might change, and in a hurry.
In recent years, for instance, we have seen the specter of the Chuitna coal mine and the Susitna River dam move forward, coming very close to reality. In fact, the biggest reason these projects did not forge ahead was due primarily to economic factors and had nothing to do with the destruction they would have wreaked upon invaluable and irreplaceable salmon habitat. If those developments had proceeded, along with the proposed Pebble mine, which is still very much in play, Alaska would have been well on its way to joining the Lower 48 and the rest of the world in hastening the demise of one of our most valuable renewable resources, our salmon.
That’s why 13 of us – an eclectic group of Alaskans made up of guides, commercial fishers and retired biologists – penned a proposal to the Alaska Board of Fisheries asking them to urge the legislature to update current habitat permitting, using scientific criteria to bring our laws into the 21st century.
The board voted unanimously to support this, and as a result Rep. Louise Stutes put forth House Bill 199, designed to develop science-based, statutory standards for permitting decisions in anadromous fish habitat. Regrettably, there was no serious consideration of the bill by the legislature.
Fortunately, the state constitution gives Alaska residents an initiative process, by which citizens can use a vote of the people to take up issues the Legislature fails to address. That’s what Ballot Measure No. 1, the Salmon Habitat Initiative, is: A response by the citizens of Alaska, signed by more than 49,000 of them, asking for a fair and common-sense permitting system that protects our fisheries well into the future.
As it stands, the current law is simply inadequate to assure suitable protection of our anadromous fish stocks. Written almost 60 years ago, it simply states, “The commissioner (of ADFG) shall issue a (habitat) permit unless the plans and specifications are insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.”
The problem is that this statute and its underlying regulations provide only this nebulous description with no defined parameters for what constitutes the proper protection of fish and game, with each administration interpreting it in its own way. What the Salmon Habitat Initiative does is it directs those within the Department of Fish and Game to define those parameters, using science-based standards – thus creating certainty in the permitting process – so every applicant will know what to expect and we can be assured that a robust permitting process will be employed for projects that threaten significant harm to salmon habitat.
Under the initiative, habitat permits would be separated into those with “major” and “minor” impacts. Those in the minor category would be streamlined, while scrutiny would be increased for major projects such as the proposed Pebble Mine.
It also allows ADFG to authorize blanket “general permits” by region for activities with comparatively little to no impact, such as ATV use, trails, and docks. The initiative also gives added voice to the people, with the inclusion of public notice and comment periods before ADFG issues a fish habitat permit that falls into the major category.
The initiative would also cut down on the amount of public funds used in permitting by requiring project developers – not the state – to pay for the costs associated with gathering information for their fish habitat permits.
DIGGING IN FOR A FIGHT
There has been considerable pushback to the initiative, especially among large corporations that see protecting salmon habitat as a hindrance to some of their projects and to their profits. Almost immediately a rather formidable group was created to counter the initiative. They dubbed themselves Stand for Alaska. They have been busy gathering funds from various corporate interests, including Donlin Gold, BP and Pebble.
The Goliath in this battle, they have amassed more than $9 million by the time of this writing, with which they have launched an extensive advertising campaign, bombarding the airwaves and print media with what many see as fear mongering and outright distortions.
One of Stand for Alaska’s biggest claims is that this initiative would shut down any and all development. It’s an incorrect assumption in any case, but one that should be completely put to bed since a recent Alaska Supreme Court decision concluded otherwise.
The court, in allowing the ballot measure to go forward, removed two provisions it found were too restrictive on
ADFG’s ability to issue permits for projects having permanent impacts to salmon habitat. It ruled that the remainder of the initiative gave ADFG sufficient leeway to issue permits considering scientific standards and the public interest.
Even with these two provisions removed, those of us deep in the trenches in our fight for salmon believe this still represents significant progress in the effort to protect our dwindling natural resources. Among those taking up the grassroots effort to push the initiative forward, the Davids in this case are the likes of sportfishing business owners, tribal councils and commercial fishers. They stand alongside conservation groups such as Cook Inlet Keeper, the Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited. These groups, working mostly on a shoestring budget with the support of local members, are doing their best to get the word out and counteract the juggernaut of advertising being put out by foes of the initiative.
A CHANCE TO AVOID REPEATING HISTORY
When it comes down to it, the simple fact of the matter is this: If a company adjusts its development plan to address anadromous fish habitat, its project can go forward. This is the minimum we should expect so that Alaska doesn’t repeat the mistakes that have been all too common in Europe and the Lower 48.
Bringing this law into the 21st century is just plain common sense and good policy. It’s the least we can do for our salmon, our children, and ourselves. I would urge everyone who’s voting on Nov. 6 to take a look at the initiative itself.
Editor’s note: Dave Atcheson is with Trout Unlimited Alaska. He is also an author whose latest book is Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas. For more on the author, check out daveatcheson.com.