My Turn: Alaska’s best rivers are the economic backbone of our future

  • By DAN OBERLATZ
  • Tuesday, March 22, 2016 1:01am
  • Opinion

For decades I have been exploring Alaska’s remote landscapes, first on my own and now as a seasoned guide and business owner. Each year, I have the pleasure of introducing several hundred of the two million visitors that travel to Alaska each year to our state. Often the highlight of the trips I lead are our magnificent cold, clear rivers and the wild salmon that return each year. Our prized salmon runs and world-class rivers have supported my business and family since 1998.

I am a small fish in a very large sea of families that also rely on Alaska’s clean waters and mighty fisheries. According to the McDowell Group, our fisheries statewide contribute $5 billion annually to the global economy and provide over 43,000 jobs. Additionally, tourists spend about $1.8 billion each year supporting 1 in 11 Alaskan jobs. Beyond these immense economic contributions, our cultures have revolved around the run of the salmon, our get-togethers feature fresh caught fish on the grill, and the nutrients of the fish build healthy kids. Our fish are much more than a tasty asset here in Alaska; they are a very part of our land and our families. Right now when a king salmon is more valuable that a barrel of oil, fish-based businesses are an essential part of rebuilding Alaska’s economy.

Given this, I have serious concerns about any proposal that politicizes the management of salmon and the water they need to survive. It seems obvious that our salmon should continue to be managed according to science, not shifting political winds or short-sighted decisions that prioritize the interests of non-renewable industries. Unfortunately, our governor seems to have lost sight of this clarity.

A new proposal (SB 163 and HB 283) under consideration by the state Legislature, and recently the topic in legislative hearings, would transfer rulemaking authority on proposed Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to the Legislature. By introducing this legislation, Gov. Bill Walker seems to be going back on campaign promises to put fisheries first and is instead favoring political decision making over science-based policy.

ONRW waters are the best of the best. One primary example is the Koktuli River, which not only sits at the headwaters of Alaska’s largest commercial sockeye fishery, but it is also essential for the Nushagak’s King run, and fantastic hunting opportunities. The area draws anglers, hunters and outdoor recreationists from around the world to enjoy its remote rivers and bountiful wildlife. For this reason, many business owners and fishermen petitioned the State of Alaska to designate the Koktuli as an ONRW in 2012. This designation would allow for existing activities but make it more difficult for large-scale projects that degrade the water quality, like the proposed Pebble mine, to be permitted.

Our proposal was rejected because the state did not have a process by which to authorize the ONRW. But putting a process in place, as the governor has proposed, that can be swayed by money and politics is not what we want for our best rivers.

My concerns about the legislative process proposed by the governor is primarily over the ownership of resources. Our waters belong to all Alaskans and should be managed in the best interest of all Alaskans. If ONRW designation is left in the capable hands of the public along with experts at the DEC and other state resource agencies, we will get what is best for the people, and sound scientific consideration. If this bill passes, it would place control of our best waters into the hands of politicians, who have a history of being swayed by political pressure, including out-of-state corporations, shortsighted development proposals and quick economic Band-Aids. All of these have proven time and again to hurt our salmon runs and jeopardize Alaskan businesses like mine that continue to thrive even in these times of economic uncertainty.

It is clear that management of Alaska’s exceptional waters deserve to be handled predictably and without political influence. There are some matters that should be left to the experts, and our water quality is one of them. My family and over 40,000 others depend on it.

• Dan Oberlatz owns and operates Alaska Alpine Adventures, an adventure tourism business and lives in Anchorage with his family.

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