New Alaska habitat protection initiative would turn tables on miners, development

A new citizens initiative being prepared for the 2018 ballot would add protections for salmon habitat in the face of big projects like the proposed Pebble mine and provide more opportunities for public comment on new developments.

The initiative petition, filed Tuesday with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, is sponsored by two veterans of the Pebble mine fight and a third who opposed a hydroelectric dam on the Susitna River: Gayla Hoseth, a tribal chief in the Bristol Bay town of Dillingham; Bryan Kraft, a Bristol Bay fishing lodge owner; and Mike Wood, a Cook Inlet commercial fisherman who led efforts against the Susitna project.

If Mallott approves their petition, the sponsors would be issued booklets for collecting the more than 32,000 signatures they'd need to put the initiative on the ballot.

In a commentary in Alaska Dispatch News on Thursday, the sponsors cited possible threats to salmon habitat posed by big mining, coal and hydroelectric projects to salmon habitat — as well as an industry-friendly federal Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump, which last week announced a settlement of a long-running lawsuit over the proposed Pebble mining prospect in the Bristol Bay region.

"We know a lot of miners, oil industry workers and loggers. We're not interested in putting them out of work," they wrote. "We are interested in making sure that all of us, including our kids and grandkids, will have a wealth of healthy streams left to fish."

The eight-page initiative would create a two-tier permitting system for activity in spawning fish habitat, with "minor" or "major" permits depending on the potential impact.

It would also classify as spawning fish habitat all tributaries and upstream reaches of water bodies already defined as important spawning fish habitat — unless the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, at the request of a permit applicant, finds otherwise.

The measure is almost a mirror opposite of House Bill 77, a pro-development measure pushed by former Gov. Sean Parnell in 2013. That bill came close to passage but was ultimately killed in the Alaska Senate the following year.

The initiative would add public notice and comment requirements that currently do not exist under state law, and it would allow the Fish and Game to bill permit applicants for administrative costs.

A similar proposal, House Bill 199, is sitting in the House Fisheries Committee — which means lawmakers could render the initiative moot by passing the legislation.

HB 199, however, has drawn opposition from supporters of natural resource extraction and at least two Alaska Native corporations, Calista Corp. and Kuskokwim Corp.

The initiative will likely engender similar pushback. It creates a "guilty until proven innocent" provision when it comes to fish habitat, said Rebecca Logan, head of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, whose members work in oil, gas and mining.

Logan, who gave the initiative a quick review at a reporter's request, wrote in an email that developers would have to overcome a "burden of proof."

"And folks who are opposed will spend years, as they do now, litigating and delaying any development efforts," she wrote.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.