Compass: Environmental groups wrong to hide behind Alaska elders

The Daily News and Bill Walker should both consider investigating the facts before publishing editorials. Their recent work got the court's ruling wrong, the law wrong, and the facts wrong (ADN editorial, Oct. 24; Bill Walker's Compass, Nov. 2).

In fact, the issue is about the Trustees for Alaska using the good names of Vic Fischer and Bella Hammond to hide multinational environmental groups that are secretly trying to influence state law.

First, a little background: The environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska sued the state about issuing water permits for Pebble. They signed up Vic Fischer and Bella Hammond and others to be plaintiffs for their case. Nothing wrong so far; people get to sue the government. Trustees then pursued an expensive legal strategy. They hired a team of expert witnesses, purchased air photos, took more than 50 depositions, made more than 1,000 requests for information from Pebble and the state. They spent a lot of money: certainly hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly $1 million.

Trustees made the state and Pebble produce a huge number of documents -- most of which were irrelevant to their charges and were never used in the court case. They asked for Pebble's fuel receipts for helicopters back to the discovery of the deposit. They asked for close to every piece of paper the state had generated relating to Pebble. This harassment cost Pebble and the state a lot of money -- needless money, given that most of the information requested was irrelevant to the issues and never used.

Trustees lost: In fact, they lost big. The court found many of Trustees' "experts" were unreliable, and that their information was based on faulty analysis. In a 154-page opinion, the judge outlined how the state and Pebble refuted every one of Trustees' charges.

Court Costs: In Alaska, the party that loses a court case must pay, though there are exemptions. The loser pays a portion of the winner's court costs and 30 percent of legal fees. These partial costs totaled more than $550,000 for the state and almost $388,000 for Pebble. Trustees responded that paying this amount would be an undue hardship for their clients, including Vic Fischer and Bella Hammond.

Who Are They Trying to Hide? The state and Pebble responded, "OK, we don't believe Vic and Bella funded or directed the lawsuit. We think they are just hiding multinational environmental groups who really pursued it. Before we review Vic and Bella's financial situation, we need Trustees to tell us who was really involved. Only then can the court make a decision if there is undue hardship."

The court agreed. They told Trustees that before they could claim undue hardship for their clients, they had to let the state and Pebble see who really funded the lawsuit. The judge granted a limited "discovery motion" to allow the state and Pebble to confidentially see (but not publicize) Trustees funding agreements. That made Trustees apoplectic. They definitely don't want anyone to see who is funding them. Trustees appealed this issue to the Supreme Court. It is still before that court. There is no final order for any Alaska elder to pay anything.

I have no sympathy for Trustees or for multinational environmental groups hiding behind our elders. Is it really good public policy that Outside environmental groups can use a scorched-earth discovery policy to force the state to spend thousands of dollars -- much of it unrelated to the legal issues -- and then escape responsibility by hiding their identity behind Alaska's respected elders? Lawsuits are a part of the American tradition. Hiding big money from view should not be.

Rick Rogers is executive director of the Resource Development Council.