Politics

Will the fish habitat ballot proposal prod Alaska lawmakers to pass a similar bill? Don’t count on it.

A spawning sockeye salmon rests in the waters near the Eagle River Nature Center, outside of Anchorage. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

JUNEAU — Opponents of a citizens initiative to boost protections for salmon habitat have a path to adapt the proposal to better suit them: helping pass a similar bill through the Alaska Legislature, which would render the initiative void.

The largely Democratic House majority last week introduced a new version of its legislation, House Bill 199, that could serve as that vehicle. Both proposals would create new permitting systems for projects that would affect fish habitat.

But the initiative's pro-development opponents say they're not exactly thrilled by HB 199 either.

And they're making no promises to try to transform it into a compromise measure that could permit resource-development projects while still achieving some of the habitat protections that supporters want.

"These solutions have to be to problems that actually exist," said Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche, a Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisherman who also works for ConocoPhillips. "The Senate majority doesn't recognize, at this point, that there's a gap."

The state elections division has not yet placed the initiative on the ballot. Yet it's already proven polarizing, and its legality is also being challenged in the Alaska Supreme Court.

The initiative is backed by an array of conservation groups that have teamed with three sponsors: Mike Wood, a Cook Inlet commercial setnet fisherman; Gayla Hoseth, a tribal chief from the Bristol Bay region; and Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, an Anchorage ecologist and fisheries advocate.

The supporters say Alaska's permitting standards are outdated and wouldn't provide adequate fish protections if proposed megaprojects such as dams, coal export projects, and the Pebble mine near Bristol Bay are ultimately built. The eight-page initiative would create a two-level permitting system with more stringent rules, like requiring that developers avoid or minimize damage to fish habitat or promise to clean up damage caused by projects.

The initiative has raised $300,000, with support from conservation groups like Homer-based Cook Inletkeeper, Virginia-based Trout Unlimited, the Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center and New Venture Fund, a left-leaning nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., according to filings with state campaign finance regulators.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker's administration initially rejected the initiative proposal, saying it would violate a constitutional ban on using initiatives to appropriate state assets — in this case, guaranteeing that water would be reserved for fish and not development.

While the initiative didn't target specific projects by name, Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said it would have had the effect of categorically blocking certain mines, dams, roads and pipelines. The initiative's supporters argue that projects would only be blocked if they can't be developed responsibly; they sued and won in lower court.

The state appealed the case to the Alaska Supreme Court, where it's now pending.

Meanwhile, some of the same people and groups supporting the initiative have also been pushing HB 199, the legislation first introduced last year by Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes, who chairs the House Fisheries Committee.

The new version of HB 199 released this week similarly aims to change the state's permitting system, but it classifies fish habitat more narrowly than the initiative.

Stutes, who used to fish commercially with her husband, said in an interview that she thinks the state's permitting laws need updating. She said she's seen poll numbers showing that the initiative is widely supported — which she thinks should motivate opponents to engage in the legislative process to help move HB 199 along.

While the initiative can't be changed before Alaskans vote on it, the legislative process allows for lobbying, debate and amendments to bills.

"We're taking comments, concerns and input," Stutes said. "With the initiative looming out there, it invites stakeholders out there in opposition, as well as legislators, to come to the table."

But opponents say they're wary of engaging with Stutes' proposal because of how much it could hurt their industries.

"I think there's an opportunity to have the discussion. I don't know that this is the right place to start," said Marleanna Hall, executive director of the Resource Development Council, which supports Alaska's mining, fishing, oil and timber industries. "The legislation that has been reintroduced is flawed and it poses a grave threat to Alaska's economy."

Hall, in a phone interview, said the RDC still plans to testify at hearings on HB 199, and to share its views. But the group is still reviewing the new version of the legislation and hasn't yet decided on its approach and message, she added.

Other HB 199 skeptics downplayed the idea that the initiative could push developers into engaging in the legislative process.

"We see these as two separate tracks," Karen Matthias, executive director of the Council of Alaska Producers, which represents the state's big mines, wrote in an email. "We firmly believe the initiative is unconstitutional and will be denied certification by the Alaska Supreme Court."

The initiative's detractors — including oil, mining, coal and construction companies, and Alaska Native corporations — have formed their own group to oppose it and have also raised about $300,000.

Stand for Salmon, a conservation group that supports both the legislation and the initiative, would be satisfied if lawmakers passed HB 199, said director Ryan Schryver. It's prepared to participate in the debate over the legislation and invites the bill's opponents to, as well, he added.

But Schryver's group doesn't want to put its focus solely on the legislative process, since it's not optimistic lawmakers will be able to pass something, he said.

"This Legislature doesn't have a track record of successfully tackling some of the really big, important issues facing our state," he said. "This is too big and too important of an issue to wait around for additional legislative sessions as they try to figure it out."