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Coal over salmon at Chuitna? There's only one Alaskan answer: No

In early October, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources must make a precedent-setting decision. The agency will decide whether to grant the request of Alaska citizens and fishermen to leave enough water for salmon to survive in the Middle Fork of the Chuitna River in Upper Cook Inlet. To deny the request would increase the threat PacRim LLC, a Delaware-based coal mining company, would be allowed to dewater the Middle Fork in order to mine for coal. Make no mistake, if the water reservation is not granted, and PacRim receives the green light to begin operations, one resource will be traded for another.

Such a decision would fall far short of our collective responsibility to balance the development of state natural resources with the protection of our lands and waters. As representatives of legislative districts that depend on Alaska fisheries, we are aware of the importance of DNR's decision. We respectfully ask Gov. Bill Walker for careful leadership on the issue for the sake of both salmon and sustainable development.

The state of Alaska faces many tough choices these days—finding new sources of revenue, funding essential state services, and debating over how to best monetize our natural gas reserves. A decision to approve an application to leave water in a river so wild salmon stocks can thrive should not be one of those choices.

Our Constitution makes all Alaskans collective owners of our fish and water resources, and Alaska law clearly allows individuals to pursue in-stream flow reservations to protect wild salmon. House Bill 77, filed under the previous administration, was a permit-reform effort that would have stripped Alaskans of the ability to make water reservations. It was wildly unpopular and failed to pass with good reason—Alaskans value their salmon and their right to protect them.

At Gov. Walker's transition team conference in 2014, citizens assembled by the governor unanimously recommended a "fish first policy" for Alaska. Reserving the water in the Middle Fork of the Chuitna for wild salmon would honor that recommendation; the governor can and should weigh in on this important decision.

As legislators we are keenly aware of the importance of natural resource extraction for our economy. A decision in favor of this water reservation is not a decision against coal, gold, copper or oil. A decision in favor of a water reservation does not prohibit economic development, and it does not prevent the permitting process from moving forward. Granting citizens the water reservation for the Middle Fork would require PacRim to proceed in a manner that leaves enough water in a river to support wild salmon runs. A water reservation is a common-sense safeguard for this vital renewable resource.

As coastal legislators, we know our constituents rely on state government to protect the wild salmon resources that so many of our livelihoods depend upon. We ask that the Walker administration ensure the "fish first policy" becomes a reality and we see this decision as its best opportunity to do so.

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 2014; Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, has served in the House since 2003, and Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, has served since 2007.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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