Compass: House Bill 77 is an insult to Alaska Natives

By DOROTHY B. LARSON and ROB SANDERSON JR.January 16, 2014 

This week over 30 tribal resolutions were delivered to the governor's office in Anchorage opposing House Bill 77. Alaska Native tribal councils from across the state are voicing concerns with this bill, and our tribal councils are represented in these resolutions.

Alaska Native peoples must speak up on behalf of our lands, waters, and traditions that may be at stake because of this bill. The Parnell administration has prioritized HB 77, which makes significant changes to its permitting process on state land. The bill would limit tribes and individual Alaskans in our ability to appeal Department of Natural Resources decisions and receive notification of decisions. The bill would strip our rights to apply for in-stream water.

Since long before statehood, Alaska Native peoples have stewarded the land, water and natural resources for our very survival and traditions. Healthy fish and animal populations, clean waterways, and vibrant lands are essential to the spiritual, cultural, nutritional and economic well-being, and a way of life for our people today and in the future. Our voices must be considered in natural resources decisions across the state.

Traditional and customary use of our natural resources, such as wild salmon, is Alaska's original economy. It remains a vital part of our culture and the economy of rural Alaska. Alaska Native peoples have an inherent sovereignty and a unique relationship to our natural environment. This bill silences our voices in decisions that could harm our traditional use of lands and waters. At its core, HB 77 is a threat to tribal sovereignty.

The Alaska Constitution reserves natural resources to the people of Alaska for common use and offers safeguards to protect our resources and our interests in them. However, in its first paragraph, HB 77 contains proposed changes to state law to give the DNR commissioner the power to override these safeguards without the checks and balances of the people. The commissioner could authorize any activity on state land through a general permit as long as that activity would not result in "significant and irreparable harm" -- a term that would also be defined by the commissioner.

This bill will allow projects to move quickly and without public knowledge into places vital to our traditional way of life. Our rights and those of future generations of traditional and customary users are under attack. Our ability to protect the lands from which we harvest wild food is at stake. Development will always be part of Alaska, but there should be careful consideration and balance when it happens.

We are Alaskans and we are Americans. We have the right to speak out on these issues. However, HB 77 would make it more difficult to appeal DNR's permitting decisions. Today, by law, anyone who can show they will be negatively impacted by an agency decision can appeal the decision. HB 77 would make that more difficult by requiring Alaskans to prove they would be "substantially and adversely impacted," which is defined only once in the bill language to mean financial or physical harm. As a result, fewer Alaskans will be able to raise valid concerns regarding natural resource decisions.

Finally, HB 77 takes away the existing right of Alaska Native Tribes, corporations and nongovernmental organizations to apply for in-stream flow reservations to keep water in streams for fishing, recreation or transportation. Sixteen tribal entities have gone through a long, costly process to submit applications for in-stream flow water rights, and DNR has accepted them. HB 77 would wipe away DNR's responsibility to process those applications or accept new ones from tribes, individuals or any nongovernmental organization, effectively abolishing the rights of Alaska Native peoples to ensure healthy streams for salmon and other uses and allowing multinational corporations to make an application to take water out of our streams. This is an insult and a threat to Alaska Native peoples.

We are calling on Gov. Parnell to withdraw the bill and on state legislators to vote it down in Juneau.

Dorothy B. Larson is the Tribal Administrator of the Curyung Tribal Council and lives in Dillingham. Rob Sanderson Jr. is the second vice president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a tribal government representing more than 29,000 Tlingit and Haida Indians worldwide. Sanderson lives in Ketchikan.

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