There are more signs that the hook has been set for Alaska’s biggest fisheries fight in a decade.
As members of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission gather in Juneau this week, salmon-supporting groups have been holding meetings about a double-barreled proposal to significantly strengthen legal protections for rivers that contain salmon.
That proposal has major implications for the state’s construction and mining industries.
Speaking Wednesday in downtown Juneau, Emily Anderson of the Wild Salmon Center said the proposal — now in the Legislature and simultaneously being considered for a 2018 ballot measure — is intended to fix a law created at statehood.
“It’s a very old law. It’s actually a holdover from the territorial government. It was changed just a little bit, but it’s very, very simple,” she said.
The law is Alaska Statute 16.05.871, which says in clause (d) that the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game should approve a project that disrupts a salmon stream “unless the commissioner finds the plans and specifications insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.”
“The only standard there is the proper protection of fish and game. So what does that mean?” Anderson asked. “There’s nothing in statute, there’s nothing in regulation that actually defines what the proper protection of fish and game is. That’s a problem.”
The proposed solution to that problem is House Bill 199, a 17-page proposal from Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak. It has been referred to the House Fisheries Committee and is expected to be heard next year.
Backers of the idea aren’t waiting for the legislative process. They’ve introduced a ballot measure that includes the text of HB 199.
The lieutenant governor’s office has until July 17 to certify or reject the ballot measure. If the lieutenant governor approves the dense, legalistic language, backers will be able to begin gathering the required signatures.
Assuming they leap the signature hurdle, the issue would be on either the 2018 primary or general election ballot.
Putting the issue on the ballot would add pressure to any debates in the Legislature. Under the Alaska Constitution, if a “substantially similar” piece of legislation is approved by the Legislature, the ballot measure would be taken away from voters. If lawmakers don’t compromise, an unabashedly pro-fish measure will be in the hands of voters.
One of the key provisions of both HB 199 and the proposed ballot initiative is a clause that calls for all rivers and streams to be considered salmon-bearing unless proven otherwise. Getting a permit to disrupt a salmon-bearing stream is much more difficult than getting a permit for a project in a river that doesn’t contain fish.
Mining, construction and development groups are already lining up in opposition to HB 199 and the ballot initiative, and the list includes some who have sided with pro-salmon groups in the past.
Southeast Conference, the municipal league for Southeast Alaska, for example, has sided with pro-fisheries organizations on the issue of riverine pollution from Canadian metal mines.
On this issue, Southeast Conference executive director Shelley Wright signed a letter of concern alongside the Resource Development Council, Associated General Contractors, Alaska Miners Association, Alaska Chamber and several other, similar organizations.
“… HB 199 would likely cause costly delays for community projects like airport expansions and village wastewater facility upgrades. It could ultimately halt even the smallest of projects,” the letter, dated April 10, says.
Robert Venables, energy coordinator for Southeast Conference, said by phone that “there’s a lot of questions revolving around the consequences of the initial language.”
He added that Southeast Conference will look forward to examining that language in detail going forward.
While voters approved an anti-Pebble Mine initiative in 2014 by a large margin, previous statewide clean-water initiatives have had a mixed record.
The closest analogy to the proposed initiative is likely a 2008 measure that would have forbidden “large-scale metallic mineral mining operations” from discharging water that contains “a toxic pollutant that will adversely affect human health or the life cycle of salmon.”
That initiative made it to the ballot after overcoming a lawsuit, but it was defeated by voters with 108,138 “no” votes and 83,574 “yes” votes.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 419-7732.