Compass: Alaska can no longer claim highest environmental safeguards

"Alaska has some of the most stringent environmental standards in the world." This is what you hear from state politicians in defense against EPA's involvement in the Pebble Mine issue. It is also a statement posted on several resource industry web pages. This is not surprising because it is a claim that's been around for a while. It may in fact have been partially true in the 1990s, when Alaska had a strong Division of Habitat and a robust coastal management program. Now this claim just simply gets said because if you say it often enough, people begin to believe it's true.

Ever since the election of Frank Murkowski as governor in 2002, the State of Alaska has been on a steady and determined path to roll back environmental protections and public involvement in the permitting of development projects. It all started when Gov. Murkowski set out to dismantle the Habitat Division. He not only succeeded in thinning out the ranks and breadth of Habitat but he placed them under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR); a move that further weakened their role. The other vehicle Gov. Murkowski used to roll back safeguards was to weaken the role of municipalities and districts in the Alaska Coastal Management Program (ACMP). What Gov. Murkowski started, Gov. Parnell finished with his veto threat during the ACMP special session.

Many Alaskans may not realize that without the habitat standards of the ACMP, the ability to protect wildlife habitat through enforceable permit conditions no longer exists. We have also lost on the fish side. While actions within the channel of salmon streams are regulated, the now defunct ACMP protected the critical habitats along the banks, estuaries and tide flats. Today, additional fish protection relies on DNR, the agency that removed "conserve and enhance" from its mission statement.

How can we speak of having strong environmental safeguards when we eliminate the ability to protect wildlife habitat and systematically weaken fish protection? How does being the only coastal state not participating in coastal zone management make us the best in the U.S., let alone the world?

Looking through the lens of Alaska's recent history of regulatory rollback, clearly this claim no longer applies. Nonetheless, it keeps being made. So I wondered what is Alaska's actual environmental ranking? Where do we stack up compared with other states? I could not find an answer to where Alaska rates in the world, but I could find these meaningful rankings from a simple Internet search:

• The 2014 Environmental Performance Index, done by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy ranks 178 countries on how well they perform on protection of human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems. The US scored 33rd.

• In July 2013, CNN Money analyzed the state's energy, waste, environmental management and mass transit systems to come up with their "How Green is My State?" report. Alaska ranked 43rd in the nation.

• In 2010 the Wall Street Journal, examined energy consumption, pollution and energy policies to rank states on energy and air quality. Alaska ranked 19.

• Greenopia, the leading directory of eco-friendly businesses completed a "green" rating of all the states in 2010. They looked at greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water consumption, air and water quality, recycling rate, renewable energy generation, number of LEED certified buildings, number of green businesses and how progressive their legislatures have been in adopting green measures. Alaska scored 43rd.

• In 2007, Forbes Magazine ranked each state in these categories: carbon footprint, air quality, water quality, hazardous waste management, policy initiatives and energy consumption. Alaska scored 40th.

Let's average these scores for Alaska - 36th overall. If I do the math right, 36th out of 50 states comprising the 33rd best country in the world is a long way from having some of the most stringent standards in the world. Politicians can no longer make this claim with a straight face and to pretend otherwise does a disservice to future generations of Alaskans.

Kate Troll is a former executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska and former fisheries specialist with the state of Alaska. As a long-time Alaskan she has over 20 years experience in fisheries, coastal and energy policy.