The deadline for a ballot initiative to revise Alaska’s salmon habitat permitting laws is approaching, with deep divides remaining even among fishermen.
The Stand for Salmon ballot initiative would ask voters to approve a sweeping rewrite of the state’s permitting laws for projects in anadromous streams, contained within Title 16 of the Alaska statutes. If passed, the ballot initiative would increase scrutiny on permits for development projects in salmon habitat and set certain criteria for stream health.
A parallel effort is going forward in the Legislature through House Bill 199, sponsored by Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak). Stutes said at a salmon habitat policy forum held Dec. 14 in Kenai that the bill will be on the “front burner” this session.
However, the supporters of Stand for Salmon aren’t staking their hopes on that.
“I’m all for the Legislature doing something if they’re going to do something, but if it’s going to get bogged down, the citizens have to do something to take care of it,” said Dave Atcheson, who gathered signatures for the initiative.
Atcheson said he sees the ballot initiative as a preventative measure to protect Alaska’s wild salmon runs from the degradation seen in anadromous streams in the Lower 48, such as Washington’s Columbia River. Most small projects, like private docks, won’t be affected, but the larger projects will have to either address the damage or change the project plans under the rewrite.
“That just makes common sense to me, being a fish guy,” Atcheson said. “If you can’t do your project without messing up a salmon stream, then you need to change your project.”
The Stand for Salmon ballot initiative has three major avenues proponents say will improve salmon habitat protection.
One is to set forth a number of basic provisions to define a healthy anadromous stream, such as water quality and volume good enough to support anadromous fish, instream flows, fish passage, bank and bed stability and habitat diversity, among other standards. It also changes the original language, saying the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner “shall ensure proper protection of fish and wildlife” as opposed to the current language, which says permits shall be granted “unless the commissioner finds the plans and specifications insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.” The initiative also creates a presumption that all anadromous streams in Alaska support salmon until proven otherwise.
Another is to establish two tiers in a permitting system and require the state to issue public notices both on the department’s website and on the state’s online public notice system. Most projects, like private docks and other projects determined to have minor effects on salmon habitat, will fall under a “minor” permit category.
“Major” permits would apply to projects the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Habitat determines would cause “significant adverse effects.” Significant damage means the activity would violate any of the standards the ballot initiative proposes.
Emily Anderson, the legal consultant for Stand for Salmon and one of the attorneys who helped draft the language, said the public notice process will help provide scrutiny for some of the larger projects. The two-tier permit system needs to have clear qualifiers, she said.
“Because it’s a two-tier permitting system, you need to figure out kind of a dividing line between which permit track your permit is going to go on,” she said. “You don’t want to have an administration that comes in and tries to push everything through a minor track when it really should be a major track.”
It also gives additional enforcement authority to the Division of Habitat, making permit violations chargeable as a class A misdemeanor under state law.
The talks that would become Stand for Salmon began in 2013 over the proposed House Bill 77, which would have limited public review in an effort to streamline development permits. Stand for Salmon spokesman Ryan Schryver said a group of citizens who came together to oppose that bill began talks then to update Title 16, which has not been updated since statehood.
“I think if you look across the state, there’s massive resource development projects being proposed in almost every major fishery,” he said. “I think that there’s a real awakening going on right now that we need to have a better structure for permitting (these projects).”
When the Board of Fisheries visited Soldotna for a three-day worksession in October 2016, many members of the public came forward to ask the board to write a letter supporting a rewrite of Title 16. However, the ballot initiative has not drawn such broad support.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, the umbrella commercial fishing association, took a neutral position on the initiative because it does not support legislation by ballot initiative, said UFA Vice President Matt Alward at the forum in Kenai on Dec. 14. The Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which represents a heavily fishing-dependent region and has publicly opposed the development of the Pebble Mine, also opposed the initiative for too broadly restricting development. The three fishermen on the panel at the forum in Kenai all said they opposed the ballot initiative as written but supported protecting salmon habitat.
Steve Schoonmaker of Kasilof, a longtime commercial fisherman who gathered signatures for the initiative, said he thought most fishermen would support it. Primarily, he said he was interested in Alaskans having an open conversation about how to protect wild salmon runs in the state from declining.
“In my mind, some would take (healthy salmon runs) for granted,” he said. “We have this incredible resource — we have these abundant salmon runs. We could lose all that. People want jobs, yes. … We’re not saying no development, we’re saying salmon first.”
Stand for Salmon supports HB 199 as it is currently written, Schryver said. The issue is timing and the potential for significant revisions in the Legislature.
“(HB 199) needs to move through the legislative process … and hopefully passes,” he said. “Unfortunately, Juneau hasn’t had an impressive track record at passing important legislation in the past several sessions. The ballot initiative is about taking the question to the people.”
The deadline for submitting signatures to the Alaska Division of Elections for the 2018 ballot is Jan. 16. The Supreme Court also still has a say in the initiative — after Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott denied the ballot petition, Stand for Salmon appealed to the Alaska Superior Court, which agreed with the group. The state appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which currently has the case on the schedule for April 26.