I urge a no vote on Ballot Measure 1, the so-called Stand for Salmon initiative. I have been involved with regulating development on shorelines for 50 years, mostly in Alaska and mostly in one government position or another. I know how projects can go off the rails — not because of the government — but because the government has provided a means for project opponents to interfere with, or outright stop, the process.
There is no on-land salmon habitat crisis in the Alaska. Recent conversations with people at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) bear this out and further indicate that changes in salmon populations are due to factors — many unknown — at sea.
The state has operated an effective permitting system to protect salmon habitat since the early 1970s. “Habitat” for salmon or any fish is the water they swim in as they feed and reproduce. Every stream in Alaska that is known to bear salmon is listed on a register maintained by ADF&G and if you want to do something in or adjacent to that stream, you need to get a permit from ADF&G. At that agency, the people who know the most about fish are the ones who regulate activity to prevent harm to fish or the waters they inhabit.
There is a lot wrong about the measure but I want to focus on the most dangerous aspect. The measure will empower the enemies of development with a lethal new tool.
The measure would give broad new powers to ADF&G to regulate development nearly everywhere in Alaska (because nearly everywhere, it drains to salmon streams). I am not worried that ADF&G employees and managers would abuse this power. Rather, I worry that decisions made by the agency will become fodder for lawsuits brought by anti-development organizations. This is because those organizations will not be content if the state or a local government makes a decision they don’t like. They will sue the government instead, and keep suing until they get what they want or finally lose at the Supreme Court.
Our regulatory system is based on giving notice of a pending application so that there is an opportunity for the public, either as individuals or groups, to comment on the matter and help the government make a better decision. The system is not designed to give those who comment on a project the power to deny the application. Approval or denial is the government’s job but the anti-development groups want that power and they obtain it by claiming in court that the government made a mistake. Such claims originating in Alaska end up at the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco where even the most spurious claims are often upheld for reasons too complex or murky to delve into here.
Recent court action on the Juneau Access Project provides a good example. During the environmental review started several years ago, an anti-road group demanded that the state include a senseless option on the list of alternatives to building a road. The state was studying several alternatives that involved increasing ferry service and the anti-road crowd said to include an alternative that would redeploy existing ferry resources to give more service to Juneau and reduce service to other communities. How would that affect Juneau’s popularity among its neighbors? The state said not a chance and did not include the option.
The anti-roaders took it to the Ninth Circuit and said that because the option was possible, it should have been evaluated and the court agreed. So, any decision made by ADF&G under Ballot Measure 1 is subject to the same second-guessing and disagreement. ADF&G can be counted on to do the right thing, but not anti-development groups. Measure 1 will give them plenty of opportunity to run this state instead of the people qualified and appointed to do that job. Vote no on 1. A yes vote is a vote for mob rule.
• Murray Walsh has held jobs for former Gov. Jay Hammond, the City and Borough of Juneau, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities as well as running his own consulting business. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.