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Proposed changes to Alaska land and water rules would silence local Alaskans

Dorothy B. Larson

Alaskans beware, the Alaska Legislature is poised to adopt radical revisions to Alaska’s water and land use laws. These changes, if they become law will not serve the public, industry, or protect our natural resources.  Utilizing and safeguarding our land and water resources for all purposes as well as having a functional water allocation system is too important to Alaska’s people to change hastily as our elected officials in Juneau are trying to do. The Curyung Tribal Council opposes House Bill 77, introduced by Governor Parnell. We believe that if the complex changes to Alaska law, such as giving the commissioner of DNR broad discretion to issue permits without public notice, doing away with the public's rights to weigh in or appeal decisions, and stopping Alaskans from being able to apply for in-stream water rights, were clearly understood by other Alaskans, they would oppose it too.

The Curyung Tribal Council, the Tribal Government for Dillingham, Alaska, looks after the best interests of our tribal members, numbering over 2,600, of which over 75 percent reside in Dillingham. We take this responsibility very seriously; in fact all actions taken by the Curyung Tribal Council are for the benefit of the Curyung Tribal Council members and by extension, all residents and visitors of Dillingham and the surrounding areas.

A priority of the Curyung Tribal Council is the protection of our renewable resources and the habitat these renewable resources require to not only prosper, but to survive.  Our people have relied upon these renewable resources for millennia and demand that our grandchildren and their grandchildren have that opportunity as well.  We use these renewable resources for subsistence, commercial, and recreational purposes; it is a wonderful life. Some of these activities you can put a financial value on easily; others are abstract, but measurable and valuable just the same.

The Curyung Tribal Council has worked diligently in applying for and documenting applications to the state of Alaska for in-stream flow water reservations to ensure the long term viability of necessary and irreplaceable wildlife habitat.  HB77 would eliminate any Alaska tribe or local users ability to make these applications and restrict our options for protecting our renewable resources. It is baffling to us that Gov. Parnell’s administration seeks to break down collaborations between the state and the tribes, especially in light of budget crunches that have moved the state to undertake just such partnerships more and more in many areas, ie. road improvements, co-management of certain renewable resources, land use documentation, mapping, etc. The state of Alaska and the tribes of Alaska, even though the state does not recognize tribal sovereignty, have become partners in many areas.

Over 40 Alaskan tribes and/or their representatives, who speak for thousands of tribal members have weighed in opposition to HB 77 yet the few committees to which this bill was assigned have all but ignored the valid and diverse concerns of Alaska’s first peoples.

HB77 also erodes, almost eliminates, public input and public process. How can a government, "Of the People, For the People, and By the People" as mandated by our plenary federal government be adhered to when there is no or limited public input? We cannot afford to take the risk of a government "run amok" without a mechanism for public input, even in the sparsely populated state of Alaska.

Now some of our ELECTED OFFICIALS have "snuck" a rider into HB77 -- without ANY public input or process -- authorizing a feasibility study for a Hydroelectrical facility in the PROTECTED Wood-Tikchik State Park, knowing that water will be used, taken, diverted and pooled from its original path. We are appalled.

Taking away private rights and limiting legal review of resource allocation decision-making may seem like a good idea to a few bureaucrats and policy makers, but it is bad for Alaskans.

We oppose HB 77 and implore legislators in Juneau to take into account our concerns and change their path.

Dorothy B. Larson is a lifelong Dillingham resident and tribal adminstrator for the Curyung Tribal Council.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.