Is the looming battle at the ballot box over the "Stand for Salmon" Initiative inevitable?
Motivated by concerns about how a 60-year-old law can protect salmon habitat from 21st-century threats, a ballot initiative focused on strengthening protection statewide was designed, upheld in court, and will be on the ballot this year.
But now there is a growing — and comprehensive — list of opponents to the initiative who say it is fatally flawed by threatening development throughout the state. Virtually the entire Alaska business community has pledged its opposition and expressed willingness to underwrite whatever it takes to defeat this initiative.
Likewise the proponents feel just as confident of victory as they quickly garnered almost 50,000 signatures from all over Alaska supporting the initiative. Whoever wins, the ballot battle will leave a lot of sore losers, and the fight will surely continue. Fortunately, there is an effective solution to settle this conflict where both sides win.
The path to compromise begins with the governor and Legislature. The only way to avoid a vote on the initiative is for the Legislature to pass a law, signed by the governor, which is "substantially similar" to the initiative. At the heart of the battle is the multimillion-dollar question: Can the goals of a new, strong and enforceable salmon habitat protection law be compatible with state fish habitat regulations that also allow resource development? I think the answer is a very clear yes.
Let me explain. After statehood, the Legislature incorporated by law in Title 16 all the responsibilities and powers to manage fish and wildlife in accordance with the constitutional mandate of "sustained yield." This law allowed the commissioner of Fish and Game to give development permits in salmon spawning waters by considering restrictions to ensure the viability of the salmon.
At the same time, over the years, the Legislature has recognized there are areas so important for the protection of fisheries that they have given them the designation of fishery reserves, refuges and critical habitat, which required some stricter habitat protection regulations. Alaskans know these areas well -– Bristol Bay and its watershed, Kachemak Bay, the Copper River Delta, McNeil River, the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and others mainly in Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula.
Within this context lies the solution to the salmon habitat dilemma without causing the unintended consequences feared by the Alaska business community. That answer would be creating new, strong, enhanced salmon habitat protections in the Title 16 water regulations ONLY for areas already identified by the Legislature as fishery reserves, refuges and critical habitat, and narrowly focused on state land in these areas.
These simple reforms to Title 16 would accomplish this goal:
– Define all waterways in these areas as anadromous;
– Require public notice and comment on any actions proposed in these areas;
– Prohibit any permanent obstructions in waterways;
– Prohibit any development that require permanent diversions or perpetual mitigation of waterways;
– Prohibit rendering waters inaccessible or uninhabitable for salmon spawning.
That's it! With some clarification of permit guidelines and public notice requirements for all other state lands regulated by Title 16, that's the whole package.
How would these new provisions to Title 16 affect Alaskans? First, to address the concerns of opponents of the initiative, it would not affect any resource development activities on state lands outside of the fishery reserves, refuges, and critical habitat. Second, everyday activities of Alaska life of subsistence and sport hunting and fishing, as well as travel for traditional activities and to villages and home sites, would be exempted. Third, waters overlying private lands, Alaska Native corporation lands, municipal lands and federal lands would not be subject to the proposal's enhanced protections. Finally, community development projects such as water and wastewater, energy, roads, utilities, airports, port and harbors would be exempted.
How would these new requirements affect a project like the proposed Pebble mine? Well, for starters, Pebble's proposal is located on state lands within the watershed of a fishery reserve and thus would be subjected to the new enhanced salmon habitat protections mentioned above. Everyone agrees that Pebble must go through rigorous permitting on the very waters that the people of Alaska and Legislature have already determined hold high fish habitat values. These very high standards of protection and enforcement do not apply to all of the other state lands that have not been designated as fishery reserve, refuge or critical habitat. This approach focuses the increased protections on lands all Alaskans highly value while leaving the permitting standards basically untouched for the vast majority of other development projects that might touch on salmon habitat.
Now back to the looming battle in this fall's initiative election. Both sides should support this reform of Title 16 as each side accomplishes its stated goal: to strongly protect and enforce the most sensitive salmon habitat areas from 21st-century threats, and to protect the continued statewide resource development on state lands.
All we need for this simple solution is for the governor and Legislature to bring the initiative sponsors and opponents to the table and reform Title 16 and void the ballot initiative. This law has remained unchanged since statehood. It's time to move forward and do the right thing.
Tony Knowles served two terms as Alaska's governor and two terms as Anchorage's mayor. He lives in Anchorage.
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