The state could lose its legal authority to have a say in projects that are overseen by the federal government in coastal areas -- including offshore oil development, mining operations and timber harvests -- if the Legislature fails to renew a state law that is set to expire in July.
It may seem like a political no-brainer to keep the Alaska Coastal Management Program intact, and certainly most lawmakers don't want to see it go away. But the looming sunset date has sharpened the debate, begun late in the last legislative session, over whether local coastal communities are being shut out by the state when it comes to making decisions on development in their own backyards.
Coastal towns and villages, primarily along the Arctic coast, made a strong push last year to substantially revamp the coastal management program to give local jurisdictions more authority, including the ability to enforce policies crafted at the local level.
But the state, including Gov. Sean Parnell, doesn't want to go that far. The governor says it's OK for the villages to have a voice -- just not too loud of one. At a press conference last week, the governor noted that there are many projects and proposals along the state's coastline, especially in the Arctic, that have an impact on the entire state, creating jobs and bolstering the entire Alaska economy. "When we have a statewide asset, the local community should not have veto authority over that," Parnell said.
He has introduced two bills -- one in the House and one in the Senate -- that would extend the coastal management program as-is another six years.
But for the proponents of a more locally effective program, six years might as well be a lifetime. They've introduced a bill through the politically powerful Senate Finance Committee that would extend the program by just a year -- long enough to keep it alive but cut short the debate and reach some resolution soon.
"I don't think we can continue under coastal zone management the way we are doing," said Sen. Donny Olson, a Nome Democrat who was one of those leading last year's move to gain more local control. He pointed out local communities are dealing with significant development issues, especially when it comes to offshore oil development, and have a vital interest in being able to shape their own policies.
Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat who co-chairs the finance committee with another coastal lawmaker, Republican Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka, spoke to reporters last week about what he sees as the hypocrisy of the Parnell administration. Parnell has made it a major theme of his administration to push back against the federal government and not let the Obama administration dictate what happens in Alaska.
"The governor is fighting the federal government for more state's rights and local communities are fighting the state for more local rights," Hoffman said. "He should understand that and work with those communities because he's doing the same thing at the national level."
With the sunset deadline looming the state Division of Legislative Audit conducted an extensive review of the Alaska Coastal Management Program over the past few months. The first part of the audit was released a couple weeks ago; the second part -- which will recommend whether the program be continued -- is expected in mid-February.
Both Olson and Hoffman said they will wait for the remainder of the audit before suggesting changes to the finance committee bill. Olson said it will be that bill -- not the governor's -- that will be the vehicle for any changes in the Senate mainly because it's already a collaborative effort on the part of a number of senators.
The first part of the audit has caused consternation among state officials, primarily within the Department of Natural Resources which oversees the program.
It concluded that changes made by the Legislature in 2003 -- at the behest of then-Gov. Frank Murkowski -- severely limited what had been the coastal communities' ability to establish enforceable policies. They were stripped of their role in reviewing air, land and water quality issues because those already fall under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The audit also concluded that changes to statewide standards may limit the coastal management program's ability to meet its objectives as set out by the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. And that could jeopardize its recertification under the federal law that created it, critics of the current law worry.
'Consistency' key to coastal management programs
Like many programs the state oversees and carries out, the Alaska Coastal Management Program is actually a federal program created in 1972 and adapted by the Legislature in 1977. It created 35 coastal resource districts that could choose to participate in local implementation efforts. There are 28 districts that have elected to participate, and 25 of them have coastal management plans that have been approved by the state. The approval process has been controversial -- some say nearly impossible to comply with -- since the changes in state law in 2003 and three districts along the Arctic coast are still without approved plans.
The centerpiece of the state's program is known as the "consistency review process," according to the audit. Activities that could potentially impact a coastal zone are supposed to be compatible with "enforceable policies" on both a state and local level. But local communities have had a tough time getting their enforceable policies approved by DNR in recent years, critics of the current law say. Under the old law, if a district program addressed the same issue as the state, the local program took precedence, the audit says.
As the audit notes, the oil and mining industries in particular are supportive of the current law because it streamlines the permitting process and companies don't have to get one permit only to be blocked on another level. That was, in essence, the main reason the Legislature came up with that's known as the "DEC carveout" to give the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation control over environmental permits.
But Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat and House Minority Leader, says the old coastal management program actually provided more of a "one-stop shopping effect" for permitting coastal zone projects. As an assistant attorney general, she represented the coastal management division and said there were only three lawsuits in the 25 years the program was in place before it was changed under the Murkowski administration.
The coastal management program gives Alaska "a seat at the table," she said, on federal projects that take place outside the state's direct coastal area, including oil drilling that may take place further than three miles out because the coastal community is affected. Kerttula said she doesn't want to see the state give up that important access and believes a solution will be found soon to the political dispute.
Lawmakers already are publicly weighing in on the issue. The House Resources Committee took it up Monday as part of an overview of the Department of Natural Resources. Alaska Coastal Management Program director Randy Bates told the committee the program will end on July 1, with no grace period, unless the Legislature acts to keep it.
"The ACMP is a valuable program," he said. "We want to see the program continue." He pointed out that the state would not be able to formally comment on federal projects like Outer Continental Shelf leasing or timber sales in the Tongass National Forest or an oil project in Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction without it.
"Without the coastal program, that is gone," he said.
Rep. Bob Herron, a Bethel Democrat, asked Bates why the governor and DNR wanted a six-year extension instead of the one-year proposal in the Senate.
Bates said having to revisit the program every year "is not productive and not effective in my mind." He said the staff -- 33 people at this point who oversee an annual budget of about $4.5 million -- need some job stability.
Bates said there was some discussion of the program at a recent DNR managers' retreat, led by Commissioner Dan Sullivan. There was discussion of whether to simply end the sunset date which would make the program a permanent one. But the governor opted for a six-year extension and that is what DNR is supporting, Bates said.
The state also takes exception to some of the findings in the audit, Bates told the committee, especially the conclusion that changes to the statewide standards implemented by DNR may be limiting the program's ability to meet its objectives. The audit cites the "less robust habitats standard" in particular.
Bates, reiterating a letter Sullivan sent to the legislative audit division earlier this month, said the auditors did not fully consider all the standards and policies used by the state coastal management program.
The federal government last certified the program in 2008 and is expected to revisit it again this year. But the federal agency hasn't started the review yet and that is making some proponents of the program nervous.
But coastal lawmakers including the influential Bush caucus want much more than just the status quo. Much is at stake as the communities come to rely more on development projects for financial security while still trying to hold on to their traditional culture.
For now, lawmakers are waiting for the rest of the audit in February. "That's going to put a lot of pressure on everyone in this state," Hoffman predicted. "I think there's a lot of debate that need to transpire. ... But what the final outcome may be remains to be seen."
Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, promised that the issue will get a thorough review in a number of committees, including community and regional affairs, resources and finance. "It's a very important issue for us this session."
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com