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Seeing red on Alaska’s salmon wars

  • Author: Rada Khadjinova
    | Opinion
  • Updated: 6 days ago
  • Published 6 days ago

Anglers fish for Coho Salmon in the evening light at Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

The battle cries for and against Ballot Measure 1 are in full swing this election season. Shall I "stand for salmon" with the proponents, or "stand for Alaska" in opposition of the initiative? It's a complicated issue, and when things get complicated, it is human nature to crave simple answers. I suppose that's how a complex regulatory issue got reduced to the emotionally charged question: "Are you for or against salmon?"

As Alaskans, clearly the large majority of us are pro-salmon. Certainly I am. I make annual use of the state's dipnet permit, I support commercial fishing interests and I believe in subsistence rights. I am also a certified environmental regulation and permitting specialist, and based on this training, I honestly cannot support the ballot measure. While a yes vote may indeed "make a statement of values," as suggested by Anchorage Daily News columnist Charles Wohlforth, it does not make a statement for good public policy.

It is one thing to be frustrated by a slow-acting Legislature, and another to draft a ballot initiative that has the potential to prioritize one resource above all others. The proponents of the measure state they are not looking to kill jobs or stop all development. Some may take them at their word. However, I was raised in the Soviet Union, so I know a thing or two about the unintended consequences of best intentions.

Did I just go there? Yes. I know that it may seem far-fetched to compare our state's salmon wars to the rise and fall of communism, but hear me out. When I came to Alaska as an exchange student 25 years ago, I was culture-shocked by the importance Americans placed on freedom, a concept I thought I understood. After all, I grew up in a country that had free elections: We were free to elect the one, pre-selected candidate printed on the ballot. That's freedom in a one-party state. Of course, that system of government proved unsustainable; communism failed and the Soviet Union crumbled. What started as a movement to help common people rise up, kept everyone down. The lesson in unintended consequences? Without options, there's no real freedom.

That's my biggest problem with Ballot Measure 1. While the Alaska Supreme Court removed the strongest language from the measure in August, the intent and outcome of the initiative remains: When it comes to development decisions that may impact salmon habitat, there is only one choice for regulatory bodies to make. And that choice is salmon above all else — above public health, public access and economic development, above other biological and mineral resource priorities and above individual needs to access our own private lands. I suppose that if people already live in an area with needed roads, affordable electricity, clean water and nice trails, there is nothing for them to be concerned about.

Freedom of choice notwithstanding, as a regulatory specialist who has managed environmental permitting projects for living, I prefer that complex regulatory changes be initiated and completed via orderly rule-making. Such a process incorporates public review and resolution of concerns from all affected parties, reducing the potential for unintended consequences, some of which we can already predict and others we can't even imagine. For instance, one of the unintended consequences of Ballot Measure 1, cited at a recent public debate, is civil and criminal penalties that would be imposed on individuals and businesses who may cause adverse effects on anadromous fish while responding to an emergency (e.g., a flood, landslide or anything else that may require constructing a stream crossing or stream diversion to alleviate said emergency on privately owned lands). Another consequence, this one quite intentional, is prohibition of offsite mitigation. This means that even if a project is determined to be in the best public interest, but impacts fish habitat, the developer would not be allowed to counteract that impact by creating new fish habitat or other related compensation. The ballot measure demands impact mitigation in place, or else the project is to be rejected.

The purpose of orderly rule-making is to balance competing priorities and minimize unwanted impacts. And although we all wish legislators and bureaucrats would work faster, I can see why Juneau has not moved quickly on this issue. Firstly, democracy is by design an inefficient form of government, but it's the best one there is. Secondly, budget wars consumed the Alaska Legislature during the past two years.

The public debate has made clear that both sides agree the proposed language is complicated, changes are needed to resolve unintended consequences, and agreement is needed on what's meant by "proper protection." The paradox is that Ballot Measure 1 proponents are telling voters to rely on the Legislature to swiftly resolve these issues after the proposition passes. We are to assume that the same, slow-acting Legislature would suddenly act swiftly and untangle all the complexities.

If passed, the ballot measure will become law, and as any lawyer who wants to keep us out of lawsuits will tell you, clarity is of utmost importance in a legal document. As written and as evidenced by major debates and misconceptions, the measure is confusing not only to regular voters, but also to legal and environmental professionals. If implemented, it would create uncertainty at every level, including among those who must enforce and comply with the law. The only confidence will be held by lawyers who, regardless of the side, will have a good lawsuit on their hands.

Despite best intentions, the ballot initiative is not a good route for enacting complex regulatory changes. The ballot process does not allow for changes. The language is set, so voters must simply take it or leave it. As written, the proposition is misleading with an overwhelming mandate to elevate one resource over all else.

I hope we vote with our hearts and our heads on this one and vote no on Ballot Measure 1.

Rada Khadjinova is a certified environmental regulation and permitting specialist and a certified project management professional. She lives and works in Anchorage as a manager for an engineering data company. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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