Mat-Su mayor, fish and wildlife commission at odds on HB 77

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- The debate over House Bill 77, a wide-ranging measure to ease development and reduce environmental restrictions on public lands, now includes the mayor of the Mat-Su Borough squaring off against the borough's own appointed fish and wildlife experts.

Among its many parts, the statewide legislation would bar private citizens or nonprofit groups from filing for water rights to protect salmon or recreation, giving that ability solely to federal, state and local governments.

The House passed the bill but it stalled in the Senate, where it lacked the votes to pass at the end of last session. The bill was left in limbo in the Senate Rules Committee, where it could emerge next session if a deal for passage is struck. Over the interim, the bill was thrashed in public meetings in Anchorage, Kenai and Homer and a key Republican senator, Peter Micciche of Soldotna, said it would have to be amended before he could support it.

Echoing some of the criticism, the Mat-Su Borough's seven-member Fish and Wildlife Commission last month wrote Gov. Sean Parnell, saying the proposed legislation would undermine ongoing efforts to protect salmon. The Parnell administration authored the bill and its companion, Senate Bill 26, last year, saying it was necessary to reduce the burden of regulations on developers and residents.

The Chickaloon Village Traditional Council -- along with the borough, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, ConocoPhillips and others -- have spent more than $1 million restoring fish passage in Moose Creek, interim commission chair Larry Engel stated in the Dec. 16 letter. The creek winds out of the Talkeetna Mountains to the Matanuska River west of Sutton. Decades of railroad and coal development left a man-made waterfall and other blocks for salmon.

Money spent on restoration has paid for data collection as well as applications for water rights to guarantee enough minimum stream flows to protect chinook, coho, sockeye and chum salmon, Engel wrote. If the legislation passes, the borough would need to spend the additional "time and effort" necessary to secure future water rights for salmon protection, said the former Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish biologist. It would also render useless the Chickaloon council's pending water rights applications on Moose Creek.

"We urge you to listen to the many concerns that Alaskans have raised about HB 77/SB26 and withdraw this legislation," Engel wrote.

Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss responded a week later with his own letter to the governor in which he called the goals of the bill "laudable." DeVilbiss cited another section of the multi-faceted bill, one that allows the state to issue "general permits" to authorize developments on state land or water without public notice or the need for an individual permit. Giving the state Department of Natural Resources the authority to issue general permits in a "timely and efficient manner" was important to the growing borough, which finds the bill's goals "worthwhile and necessary," DeVilbiss wrote.

Then the mayor referenced what he termed the "letter of non-support" from the commission.

"I wanted to let you know that in 2013 the Mat-Su Borough Assembly voted not to weigh-in on this piece of legislation, not once, but twice," he wrote. "We understand that fish habitat protections are within state statutes and regulations, and are not diminished by this proposed bill."

Warren Keogh, a former Assembly member from Chickaloon, lashed out at the mayor this week.

"On this issue, the Commission has it exactly right and the mayor has it exactly wrong," Keogh told the Assembly during a special meeting Tuesday afternoon. "Mr. Mayor, not only have you come down squarely on the wrong side of the issue, but you are once again making unauthorized borough policy statements by describing HB77 as something 'we' find laudable and 'worthwhile and necessary.'"

The Assembly neither voted on a position on the bill nor directed the mayor to communicate its position to the governor, said Keogh, who served on the body until October.

"Making such comments is beyond your job description and out of line," he said.

The Mat-Su Borough has a hybrid "weak mayor" form of government. The mayor presides over Assembly meetings but cannot vote, though he can veto Assembly legislation. The mayor also serves as a community liaison at ceremonies and nominates members to boards and commissions. Most administrative power is held by the borough manager.

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.