JUNEAU -- The Parnell administration is expressing a willingness to back off a bit on one of its regulatory rollbacks, after a bill it introduced stalled in the last legislative session. Opposition to House Bill 77 has been marshaling for the session that begins next week.
Among other things, the measure aims to speed development, in part by limiting public participation.
"We've heard a lot of public input from people where people have basically told us there are certain provisions of this bill that they don't like," said Ed Fogels, deputy commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. “We're looking at those provisions to see if we can change them to alleviate those concerns."
'One of the basic obligations of democracy'
Fogels spoke Tuesday on the Alaska Public Radio Network's "Talk of Alaska" program, hosted by the network's Alexandra Gutierrez. Two other guests on the program, former Alaska State Senate President Rick Halford and Tanana Chiefs Conference attorney Natasha Singh, outlined some of the concerns and debated the bill with Fogels.
Halford is a Republican who served 25 years in the Legislature, most recently representing Chugiak and Eagle River. He said he could understand the Department of Natural Resources getting tired of having to listen to the public before taking actions such as issuing permits. "But that's one of the basic obligations of democracy, to listen to people," he said.
Halford also expressed concerns about how the lengthy bill was drafted, with important provisions beginning with the phrase "notwithstanding any other provision of law" before making sweeping changes to 30 years of carefully crafted compromises between developing resources like minerals, while protecting other resources, like salmon.
The bill, he said, makes it easier for foreign corporations to develop Alaska resources while blocking Alaskans from protesting.
Fogels warned of "misinformation" about what the bill would do, and said that it would in no way change the Department of Fish and Game's mission to protect fish resources.
"That's their fundamental responsibility," he said, and that won't change.
Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell testified repeatedly to that, Fogels said, but he's willing to see the bill amended to make it clearer.
"They're still responsible for protecting fish and fish habitat, and House Bill 77 doesn't change that,” he said. “If they have to work through some changes to clarify that, we'll just have to do that," he said.
The state is open to discuss amending the "notwithstanding" language that raised some concerns, Fogels said.
Halford called such an amendment "a step in the right direction, but the fact that it was ever included is a dangerous precedent."
Including Alaska tribes
Singh of the Tanana Chiefs Conference questioned why the bill -- and the Parnell administration -- sought to exclude tribal governments from applying for water reservations to ensure that fish are protected. "We absolutely need the inclusion of the tribes," she said.
While Fogels said that tribes didn't represent a majority of residents in some areas, Singh said they often did in rural areas -- where no other local government represented them.
"This is taking the voice of the people and democracy out of the statute," she said.
HB 77 passed the House of Representatives 23-14, largely along party lines. One Democrat, Rep. Ben Nageak of Barrow, joined the majority Republicans supporting the bill, while two Republicans, Reps. Alan Austerman of Kodiak and Paul Seaton of Homer, joined with Democrats to oppose it.
In the Senate, the bill got to the floor on the final day of the session before being returned to committee.
Fogels defended Parnell administration efforts to involve the public in the process of changing environmental protections, and said the public could have been more involved. "We did make a substantial effort to involve the public in this discussion," he said. “Now, granted, it's not easy to get the public excited about a dialogue about permitting, and we didn't get as much input as we'd have liked, but we did make the effort."
Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com