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Supreme Court rules in favor of Bristol Bay ballot measure

Lisa Demer

Alaska voters will get their say on a ballot measure that, if approved, would give the Legislature authority over whether to allow a large mine -- including the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine -- in the Bristol Bay watershed.

The Alaska Supreme Court on Monday issued a three-page order saying the voter initiative known as Bristol Bay Forever can go forward and that a more detailed ruling will follow.

Three Alaska voters, Christina Salmon, Mark Niver and John Holman, sponsored the initiative back in 2012. The measure doesn't mention Pebble but would require the Legislature to approve any big mine within the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve, a salmon-producing watershed. Another resident, Richard Hughes, sued the state and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell -- who must decide whether to approve such measures for the ballot -- to block the initiative. The Alaska Miners Association and the Council of Alaska Producers joined in the challenge, and the initiative sponsors are helping defend it.

Hughes, a Fairbanks mining engineer, argued that the voter initiative amounted to an unconstitutional appropriation of state assets, unconstitutional local or special legislation and a violation of separation of powers by giving legislators power over executive branch decisions on mining.

A Superior Court judge earlier ruled for the state and the initiative sponsors, and the mining interests appealed in an effort to strip the initiative from the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

The case was argued before the Supreme Court on June 11 and the justices said they were issuing a quick decision to let the state Division of Elections know whether to include the measure on the ballot. The decision was needed by Sept. 3, the order said.

The justices found that the measure did not violate the Constitution.

Matt Singer, a lawyer for the challengers, said they were disappointed.

"I suspect the decision reflects the court's evolving preference for refraining from pre-election review," Singer said in an email.

If voters approve the measure, the mining interests or others will likely challenge it anew, he said.

"This type of law simply has no place in our form of government with three co-equal branches of government," Singer said.

Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general, said the state was pleased the Supreme Court agreed the initiative complies with the Constitution and state law.

The initiative will appear as Ballot Measure 4.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com