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Public comment on Alaska megaprojects deserves informed debate, not rhetoric

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Loren Holmes photo

OPINION: I recently attended a meeting where hundreds lined up to testify about their opinion. No surprise there -- Alaskans have never been short of opinions. When I covered the Homer area, the going joke among journalists was what the winter's hot topic would be. Every year, something would come up -- a proposed traffic light, a box store, annexation -- that would get the community riled into a fervor hard to imagine in a place that touts itself as a "cosmic hamlet by the sea."

But Alaskans love their opinions and we have lots of them and are rarely tight-lipped, so it's no surprise that when an issue comes forward that deals with the ever-present push and pull between the lure of high-paying jobs and the need to protect the environment, especially an environment that contains a lot of fish, people come out in droves.

But here's what's frustrating about all that. At the recent meeting, people were asked to give comment about a proposed draft of the Environmental Protection Agency's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which has implications for the Pebble Mine prospect. In listening to hours of testimony -- much of it passionate -- I heard maybe two or three people comment who had obviously read the report and had constructive comments about what was missing. A couple people mentioned the need for more information about fresh water fish. Bravo! That is something that EPA folks can actually use. Another commented that too little emphasis was put on the subsistence users and their cultural connection to the fish. Bravo again! What are the long-term implications of a 401c3 ruling in the Bristol Bay region beyond the scope of mines? Good question. Alaskans deserve an answer.

Between development in the Arctic and resource development in Southwest Alaska, Joe Public is going to have plenty of opportunity to attend meetings and give comment in coming years.

Every step of the regulatory process of any development has time for people to voice their opinion built in. But how frustrating is it if you are a scientist or a economist and you want to know how your plan or project is really going to impact a people, and instead of constructive criticism, you get emotion-based rhetoric? And furthermore, what can those officials really do with that testimony? Not much.

There are plenty of venues for voicing your opinion -- this opinion page is a great one. I'd love to see it full of people objecting, weighing in, offering applause and frustrations. It's not that those opinions are not worthy of being voiced. But here's the rub. What if all those voices competing to be heard drown out those who have read the reports in question and have something substantial to say, something that those who are studying the topic missed.

At the very least, if you come to offer your opinion, come educated. We all have values and we all value different things differently. It makes our state an amazing place to live. But I challenge those who come to public meetings to come with something more developed than a presentation of their values. I challenge you to come with an understanding of the details. Because Alaskans know their state, and this stuff is not above you. You do have valid input that needs to be heard. Let's hope the emotionally-driven dust can settle enough for those thoughts and concerns to come forth. Because the last thing we need is hyperbole and rants influencing such important decisions for Alaskans.

Carey Restino is news editor of the The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this commentary was originally published. It is reprinted here with permission. Contact Restino at crestino(at)reportalaska.com

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a commentary for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.