Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, March 28, at the Alaska State Capitol. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, March 28, at the Alaska State Capitol. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

House approves tougher route for environmental protections on Alaska rivers, lakes

HB95 would require lawmakers approve any “Tier III” labeling, the highest level of federal protection.

A bill passed last Thursday by the Alaska House of Representatives would affirm a tough hurdle for top-level environmental protections on rivers and lakes in the state.

House Bill 95, passed on a 21-18 vote, would require that labeling a river or lake a “Tier III” waterway requires legislative approval.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, a Tier III designation represents the highest level of protection available, prohibiting most forms of development that affect the water body with the label.

“It’s essentially a lockup of that water and almost everything that pertains, even peripherally, with that water. It’s a very significant decision,” said House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, speaking in favor of the bill.

Since 1983, when the federal government required that each state create a process for labeling Tier III waters, the state of Alaska has never labeled something as Tier III.

Five Tier III applications are pending, with the oldest dating from 2009.

Current state policy, finalized by the Department of Environmental Conservation in the last month of former Gov. Bill Walker’s term in office, already says that only the Legislature can label something as Tier III. Putting that rule into state law would prevent the agency from changing that standard unilaterally.

Different versions of HB 95 were proposed in 2019 and 2022 but never advanced. HB 95 was proposed by Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton.

Speaking after the bill’s passage, he said the latest bill isn’t significantly different from those prior versions. The difference this time is that the House is controlled by a predominantly Republican majority.

Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, said that if there is no legislative approval, he worries that a handful of people, familiar with the state regulatory process, might be able to gain Tier III approval for a state waterbody.

“This is just too important to enable a few people to tie up a public resource,” he said.

Pro-development groups, including the Resource Development Council, have testified in favor of the idea behind the bill, while environmental groups and some tribes oppose it.

“I don’t feel comfortable in this role here as the Legislature, doing this,” said Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage.

An environmental engineer in private life, Mears said she doesn’t believe the Legislature has the expertise to determine whether a body of water meets the required technical standards.

Rauscher disagreed, pointing to the wide variety of legislation that lawmakers are asked to consider.

“We’re talking about how much gas pressure should be down a hole, we’re talking about a space program. We’re talking about all kinds of things we don’t have expertise in. It’s our job to figure it out,” he said.

Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, said having the Legislature make the decision would result in a designation process “so truncated that it becomes purely a political process.”

She and other dissenters said they believe DEC has the power to approve Tier III designations under existing state law and that a DEC-led process, based on staff work, would be preferable.

Rauscher responded afterward that if 60 legislators from different areas of the state are making the decision, rather than a single agency from a single governor’s administration, the result will be less politics in the process, not more.

“I don’t think the final decision on any body of water is going to be more political because of this bill. I think it’ll be less, because we have 60 sets of eyes on it,” he said.

In the Senate, the bill has been referred to the resources committee, where Co-chair Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, has introduced her own version. Giessel said on Monday she was unsure whether the bill has the support needed to pass the Senate.

• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of May 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

Wreath bearers present wreaths for fallen comrades, brothers and sisters in arms during a Memorial Day ceremony at Alaskan Memorial Park on Monday. Laying wreaths on the graves of fallen heroes is a way to honor and remember the sacrifices made. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
Traditional Memorial Day ceremonies offer new ways to ‘never forget’ those who served

New installations at memorial sites, fresh words of reminder shared by hundreds gathering in Juneau.

Thunder Mountain High School graduates celebrate after moving their tassels to the left, their newly received diplomas in hand, at the end of Sunday’s commencement ceremony. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
‘Forever a Falcon’: Thunder Mountain High School celebrates final graduating class

147 seniors get soaring sendoff during 16th annual commencement full of heightened emotions.

Seniors at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé enter the gymnasium for their commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
JDHS graduates celebrate journey from virtual ‘pajama class’ freshmen to virtuous camaraderie

Resolve in overcoming struggles a lifelong lesson for future, seniors told at commencement ceremony.

Sierra Guerro-Flores (right) listens to her advisor Electra Gardinier after being presented with her diploma at Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduation ceremony Sunday in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé auditorium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Alternatives are vast for Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduating class

31 students take center stage during ceremony revisiting their paths at the school and what’s next.

The LeConte state ferry in 2023. (Lex Treinen / Chilkat Valley News)
Stranded Beerfest travelers scramble to rebook after LeConte ferry breakdown

Loss of 225-passenger ferry leaves many Juneau-bound revelers looking for other ways home.

A photo taken from the terminal roof shows the extent of the first phase of paving to accommodate large aircraft. (Mike Greene / City and Borough of Juneau)
Large-scale repaving project plants itself at Juneau International Airport

Work may take two to three years, schedule seeks to limit impact on operations.

Capital Transit buses wait to depart from the downtown transit center on Thursday. Route number 8 was adjusted this spring. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
More service, visitor information helping Capital Transit to keep up with extra cruise passenger traffic

Remedies made after residents unable to board full buses last year seem to be working, officials say

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, May 23, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read