As Gov. Sean Parnell celebrates the progress of House Bill 77 through the Senate Finance Committee this week, Alaska Democratic Party representatives are calling it an attack on Alaska's resources.
The bill was sponsored by the House Rules Committee per the governor's request, and aims to streamline the process for issuing, obtaining and appealing permits regarding land and water use issued by the Department of Natural Resources.
"Alaskans deserve a fair and efficient permitting process," Parnell said in a March release after the bill cleared the House. "One that creates more job opportunities, and that is exactly what our bill provides. I am pleased the Alaska House of Representatives passed this legislation promoting responsible resource development."
Alaska Democratic Party Chair Mike Wenstrup, however, calls the bill anything but responsible.
"HB 77 is part of the Parnell-Treadwell assault on Alaskans' resources and traditional way of life," said Wenstrup in a Monday release. "By taking away Alaskans' water rights and by making it harder for fishermen to protect their livelihood in court, this bill endangers Alaska fisheries."
The party notes several portions of the bill that they believe pose a direct threat to Alaska's multi-billion dollar fishing industry, and the rights of individuals to challenge resource use and permitting.
Section 34 of the bill allows an indeterminate volume of water to be pulled from Alaska rivers by Outside interests.
"Current law makes it illegal to withdraw water from state rivers," said a Democratic Party release, "but HB 77 would give blanket approval to water withdrawals unless they are deemed 'significant' by the state. This amounts to a blank check for special interests with lobbying muscle."
Along those same lines, Section 40 moves the ability to protect water rights for fishing or traditional purposes, from the individual, NGOs or tribal organizations to the state.
Currently, an individual or a tribe can apply for a reservation that keeps water in a particular river or stream that might otherwise be diverted or removed for resource development, such as mining. Section 40 removes the right for many individuals and organizations to apply for those protections, and cancels all pending applications not originating in state or local government.
That news was a blow to the Curyung Tribal Council, which has filed a petition to protect nine river-habitat areas north of Iliamna. The reservation request was filed to protect fish and essential habitat from the potential effects of mining in the region. In an effort to protect their application from being thrown out, last month Curyung asked the Dillingham City Council to become a co-applicant. Because they are a local government and not a tribal organization, the application would likely keep its current status.
Across the state, lawmakers and residents have expressed apprehension over how some of these provisions alter the ability of individual Alaskans and small entities to participate in the ongoing process of resource protection and development.
Section 39, and other stipulations, change how individual residents are able to challenge water rights issues legally.
"Section 39 changes the legal standard for an Alaska resident to defend his or her water rights and associated fisheries-related income," states a Democratic party release. "Under current law, an 'aggrieved' person can appeal state-grant permits in superior court. Under HB 77, only a person with a "physical or financial detriment" could appeal to superior court."
The party claims the bill's language removes Alaskans' ability to challenge Outside permits in court, contrary to the legal precedent.
"This provision undermines Alaskans' right to protect their resources and traditional way of life in court," the release states. A majority of testimony heard at the Senate Finance Committee hearing opposed the bill in part or in its entirety.
There is, however, marked support for it. Alaska State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachael Petro recently released her testimony urging lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to support the measure, and similar legislation in the senate — Senate Bill 26.
"The Alaska Chamber supports the provisions within HB 77/SB26 because they provide clarity, eliminate unnecessary processes, and modernize statutes based on the experience gained over many years from the professional staff within the Department of Natural Resources," Petro wrote.
"It is our belief that HB 77 is a common sense piece of legislation that should receive broad bipartisan support."
The bill proposes a boost to permitting efficiency in a variety of ways, including authorizing the natural resources commissioner to issue permits if the requested activity is deemed unlikely to cause irreparable or significant harm to surrounding areas.
Many groups across the state, however, find that the legislation would take away much more than it provides.