New version of contentious land-use bill emerges in Juneau

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- A troubled Parnell administration bill to overhaul land use management in Alaska made its first appearance in this year's legislative session Monday afternoon when a new version was introduced in the Senate Resources Committee.

Some who have been fighting House Bill 77, including fishing interests and Alaska tribal groups, said they aren't satisfied. They maintain that even the latest adaptation limits the public's voice and fails to protect Alaska rivers and streams.

But at least one key senator who was unconvinced last year said Monday that the bill appears to be a solid compromise.

Administration officials pushing the measure say it would make government more efficient and streamline permitting.

Much of it wasn't controversial, but three changes in last year's version were fiercely fought: the creation of a new "general permit" for development, a provision that appeared to dramatically increase the power of the natural resources commissioner, and elimination of the ability of private individuals and organizations to protect streams and rivers through water "reservations."

All three areas have been addressed, Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash said in an interview Monday.

For instance, the new version allows individuals, nonprofits, companies and tribes, along with governments, to petition the Department of Natural Resources to protect rivers and streams by reserving the water for recreation, fish habitat and other public purposes.

The water right would be held by a state agency no matter who applied. Tribal groups are protesting that element, but the Parnell administration said it ensures stability. DNR has never granted a private group or person a water reservation, and officials said it might if the water right were held by the state.

"Over 40 Alaska tribes and Native groups passed resolutions opposing HB 77 and DNR's proposed changes, revealed today, fail to address our concerns," Dorothy Larson of Curyung Tribal Council said Monday in a written statement. "Alaska Natives continue to be cut out of the conversation."

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said the legislation won't satisfy both pro-development interests and fishing and environmental interests but he considers it fair.

"Do you get everything you want? Well you don't," Micciche said in an interview Monday. "But from the changes that have been made to the bill, only those at the most extreme wings of these two issues may have difficultly agreeing that this is a well-thought compromise. It gets us pretty close."

Last year he held two public meetings on the Kenai Peninsula about the complex bill, which now stretches to almost 25 pages, and said he's been pushing to get his constituents' concerns addressed.

"In my view, this is a case where government actually worked," Micciche said.

The measure passed the full House last year but ran into the trouble in the Senate, where it was holed up in the Rules Committee until Monday.

The Senate Resources Committee chairwoman, Anchorage Republican Cathy Giessel, did not release the new bill version for public view until the start of Monday's 3:30 p.m. hearing. She said that was "protocol." But some committee chairs provide copies of proposed changes in advance.

The opening language of last year's measure fired up critics and the new version strips out or changes some of that.

The new measure removes the phrase "notwithstanding any other provision of law" that gave the natural resources commissioner power to grant a general permit for numerous activities on state land.

The new version also bars general permits for projects that would cause either signifiant or irreparable harm. The earlier proposal barred them only if projects would cause harm both significant and irreversible.

General permits are common elsewhere including for the Army Corps of Engineers but state law hasn't specifically allowed them for DNR.

The concept is controversial because once a blanket general permit is issued for projects such as mining work camps, stream crossings or mooring buoys, specific developments could proceed with no requirement for public notice or comment.

As Parnell administration officials explained the new version to the Resources Committee, Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, questioned why the administration needed general permitting powers at all.

"This section motivated maybe thousands of Alaskans to come out against this bill," French said. "I just wonder whether it would be better to jettison the general permit and move on to the other reforms that the bill offers and leave this sort of controversial, hot topic for another day."

Wyn Menefee, chief of operations for the Division of Mining, Land and Water, responded that the provision will make DNR more efficient by allowing small, similar projects to operate under one permit. He and other officials repeatedly give the example of a general permit for numerous mooring buoys needed by individual fishing boats.

Balash and Menefee both said that the department doesn't now have to provide notice of and seek comment for the types of projects covered by the measure, arguing that it gives the public more voice, not less, with its public involvement requirement.

Former Republican Senate President Rick Halford, one of the loudest critics of House Bill 77, said in an interview he still has concerns and urged that legislators specify the particular type of project that would be allowed.

"If you have a fishing lodge at the head of a pristine, fantastic stream with a really unique run of fish, and there is a general permit for heavy equipment stream crossings and that is issued two years before, you will never even know that someone plans to cross your stream in a spawning season," Halford said.

Brent Goodrum, the state's director of mining, land and water, said after the hearing that the legislation would not allow heavy equipment to cross in spawning season -- that would cause real damage.

Lindsey Bloom, a fisheries consultant and commercial fisherwoman, said she remains worried about a provision to limit appeals of DNR decisions to people who are "substantially and adversely affected."

The committee will hear public comment on the proposal Wednesday.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 952-3965.

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