Compass: DNR fails Alaskans trying to protect Chuitna salmon

In a recent opinion piece, Ed Fogels tries to defend the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) illegally ignoring Alaskans who want to keep enough water in local streams for our salmon. As one of those Alaskans DNR ignored, I'd like to set the record straight.

I've fished and hunted around my home near the Chuitna River in Upper Cook Inlet for the past 40 years, and I feel damn lucky for it. When a couple folks from Texas decided to put a coal strip mine through a salmon stream in my backyard, I got together with my friends and neighbors and decided to work to protect our salmon and our way of life.

One of the things we did was ask the state to keep enough water in a stream to support our salmon runs. The Chuitna River has been called the "Kenai of the West Side" for its king salmon run, and the Chuitna watershed supports all 5 species of wild Pacific salmon, so we thought our state government would be happy to reserve some water for our fish.

But to our surprise, the state refused to act on our request despite collecting a $4500 fee for our application. The state said it could not find the time or the resources to process our request. But somehow it found a way to process water use and other permits for the Outside coal company.

Recently, the Alaska Superior Court found DNR violated our constitutional rights by refusing -- for more than four years -- to process our request to reserve some water in the stream for salmon.

In defending DNR's inaction, Mr. Fogels said there is "no immediate need" for the state to process our application despite the fact that PacRim Coal already has begun submitting permit applications for its strip mine. This begs the questions: Do we ave to wait until the shovels come to remove our salmon stream before Mr. Fogels and DNR find "immediate need?"

Mr. Fogels also claims the state considers "competing uses on a water body" when deciding whether to process a water reservation. But a judge found DNR violated this very principal when it ignored water flows for salmon and gave the coal company permits to take water from the same stream.

It's bad enough when our state government breaks laws intended to protect our salmon. It's worse when that same government works to repeal the very laws it refuses to enforce.

In Januray the Parnell Administration introduced what we call the "Silencing Alaskans Act" (House Bill 77), which would, among many other things, strip away the rights of ordinary Alaskans to ask for water reservations in our salmon streams. There are some things that should not be left solely to government control, however, and it's clear private citizens should play an active role in protecting our wild salmon runs.

For example, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game asked DNR in 1996 to reserve water for salmon in the Chuitna River, and for more than 16 years DNR has refused to act. Based on our experience, DNR would never have acted to keep adequate water in the Chutina watershed had we not pressed the issue.

Our state government says it lacks the time and resources to obey the law and help Alaskans keep water in our fish streams. Ironically, the same government is spending considerable money and time on a fancy lobbying and public relations campaign to ensure Alaskans never have these rights again. We need state government that will stand up for Alaskans and the wild fish that support us.

Larry Heilman is a retired power plant worker and founding member of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition,