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Salmon ballot initiative could have far-reaching consequences

  • Author: Peter Illig
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 31
  • Published July 31

Recently, there have been many commentary and opinion articles published regarding the Stand for Salmon initiative. I found that most of them claimed without substantive information that the initiative would better protect salmon habitat (i.e. anadromous fish habitat) or that it would increase costs of development and/or eliminate jobs in Alaska. I hope to convince everyone to thoroughly read the initiative before voting on it. I'd like to highlight a few key aspects of the initiative that will change how we manage use of Alaska's waters and how they are classified.

The Stand for Salmon initiative changes the definition of maintaining habitat, creates a new permitting process for using anadromous fish, introduces fines and criminal penalties for violating permits or regulations, redefines most waters of Alaska as anadromous and prohibits any activities that cause significant damage to the beds that underlie these waters.

Under AS 16.05.871, the current regulation requires any "person or governmental agency desires to construct a hydraulic project, or use, divert, obstruct, pollute, or change the natural flow or bed of a specified river, lake, or stream, or to use wheeled, tracked, or excavating equipment or log-dragging equipment" in anadromous fish habitat to contact the commissioner for written approval. The commissioner must ensure "proper protection of fish and game" and may deny any projects or activities that do not demonstrate that this protection will be achieved.

The initiative will replace this system with one that includes minor and major use permits and changes the definition of maintaining habitat to include water quality, flow rates and other factors. The new permits vary in application requirements but are necessary before activities not pre-approved by the commissioner can commence. All permit applications will be posted publicly, require a 30-day public comment period and hold at least one public hearing if requested by one person.

These permits, public comment periods and public hearings will be required on virtually all waters in Alaska due to a new classification system for habitat. The initiative requires the commissioner to specify which waters are anadromous and if there is no specification, the "commissioner shall presume that a naturally occurring permanent or seasonal surface water body, including all upstream tributaries and segments is anadromous fish habitat if it is connected to anadromous waters … or to marine waters." The initiative does not allow the commissioner to classify non-anadromous stream habitat without documentation. This is the reverse of the current system, which requires anadromous habitat classification to provide scientific documentation from qualified scientists. This means that initially, every stream, river, slough, bog and lake in the state will be reclassified as anadromous fish habitat.

Furthermore, if someone wants to classify a water as not anadromous fish habitat, then the "determination that a water body is not anadromous fish habitat must be supported by the commissioner's written finding and verifiable documentation must be made available on the department's internet website with public notes through the Alaska Online Public Notice System." The initiative does not provide any direction as to what constitutes "verifiable documentation." I assume that a qualified fisheries biologist will have to conduct a site investigation to provide the verifiable determination. The initiative does not require the state to provide any financial assistance to classification of water bodies; therefore, site investigations will be at the cost of the land user.

Figure 1: Stream locations for most of Alaska. Anadromous stream data is from the ADF&G Anadromous Waters Catalog database. Other stream location data is from Alaska Hydrography Database. (graphic by Peter Illig)

Let's consider what the reclassification means for using waters in Alaska. In Figure 1, the anadromous streams of Alaska are mapped in red (Alaska Anadromous Waters Catalog) while streams not classified as anadromous are in blue (Alaska Hydrography Database). Based on the two data sets, there are 123,445 kilometers of mapped anadromous streams and 1,476,411 kilometers of mapped non-anadromous streams. With the assumption that all streams and lakes in Alaska eventually reach the ocean, the initiative would reclassify all water bodies in Alaska as anadromous, if "verifiable documentation" does not exist. This would be a massive expansion of waters classified as anadromous habitat (an increase of almost a dozen times). As mentioned earlier, "verifiable documentation" must be provided to declassify any of these waters at the expense of the land user. What is also not known is what data exists in these areas that are not currently classified and how long it would take to collect new data and provide documentation for all of these water bodies. Given how many water bodies Alaska has, it will probably take a long time.

Southcentral and Interior Alaska water use permitting requirements would be changed dramatically, as current anadromous streams are a minority when compared to water bodies connected to the ocean (Figures 2 and 3). In Southcentral, all activities on water bodies or under the mean flood level that that are not pre-approved, such as wheel mounted vehicle use, would require a permit. Supposedly the commissioner would approve aircraft landing on gravel bars, snowmachining on rivers and other typical activities. The initiative does not stipulate which activities can be pre-approved. It is unlikely for ATV use to be pre-approved, as wheels disturb stream beds, so any ATV crossing of waters in Alaska could require a permit.

Figure 2: Streams of Southcentral Alaska. Anadromous streams are highlighted in red. The data sources are the same as Figure 1. (graphic by Peter Illig)
Figure 3: Streams of Interior Alaska. Anadromous streams are highlighted in red. The data sources are the same as Figure 1. (graphic by Peter Illig)

In Interior Alaska, hunting and mining activities would be impacted. Almost all waters in interior Alaska flow towards the Yukon or Tanana rivers, so they would also be classified as anadromous until someone provided "verifiable documentation" proving otherwise. This means new placer mine applications in the Fairbanks, Circle, Chicken regions and elsewhere would likely be denied until the streams were classified as not anadromous. Hunting with ATVs anywhere in Alaska that requires crossing a stream or slough could require a permit. ATV use can significantly alter a slough or streambed, and since all streams would be considered anadromous habitat, a major permit application could be necessary depending on legal interpretation of the initiative.

Related to the permits, the initiative introduces class A misdemeanor penalties and up to $10,000 in fines for violating a permit or breaking any of the regulations in the initiative. This means that an activity such as crossing a stream or slough with an ATV would be punishable if the proper permits were not applied for and granted before the activity commenced.

Lastly the initiative directs the commissioner to "issue a major permit to an applicant only if: … (3) the activity, as authorized by the written permit determination, will not cause substantial damage to anadromous fish habitat under AS 16.05.877(b)." This is likely what prompted the lieutenant governor to deny the initiative application as it appears to prioritize anadromous habitat over all other resources.

A careful reading of Stand for Salmon can conclude that the initiative will increase protections of salmon habitat by increasing permitting requirements on their habitat and reclassifying nearly all waters of Alaska as salmon habitat until proven otherwise. At the same time, it will likely slow down permitting processes and deny projects that would alter or damage any stream bed, slough or lake bed, whether it hosts anadromous species or not. The reclassification of waters from anadromous habitat back to non-anadromous is likely to take a long time, be expensive and will ultimately slow down many projects in Alaska. I think both Stand for Salmon and Stand for Alaska are correct in some of their claims. It is up to Alaskans to decide what level of permitting they want to apply to the using water bodies in Alaska and the amount of money and time we want to spend making natural resource decisions.

My personal opinion is that there are good parts to Stand for Salmon. The idea of changing the definition of maintaining habitat to include pH, temperature and other factors are positive. I fear that other aspects of the initiative will have far reaching impacts that may have not been intended.

Peter Illig
is a Ph.D. candidate in geology at the Colorado School of Mines. He received his Masters in economic geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and researches precious and base metal deposits of Alaska and Northeast Queensland, Australia.

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