Board of Fish drafts support for habitat permitting reform

The Board of Fisheries is working toward a formal motion lending its support to a citizen-generated request for the Legislature to review the state’s fish habitat permitting process.

A group of 13 stakeholders from around the Cook Inlet region submitted a non-regulatory proposal to the Board of Fisheries requesting that the board ask the Legislature to update some of the provisions related to permits issued in fish habitat areas. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issues permits to projects that will impact fish habitat, such as mining or construction projects.

The proposal asks that the Legislature update Title 16, the section of Alaska statute that outlines the responsibilities of Fish and Game, to take a different tack on the permitting process. Currently, Alaska statute states that the commissioner of Fish and Game shall issue a permit unless the activity is determined to be insufficient for the protection of fish and game resources.

The proposers — who range from private anglers to set gillnet operators and biologists — want to see the phrase “insufficient for the protection” more clearly defined. During the Board of Fisheries worksession held Oct. 18–20 in Soldotna, dozens of people came forward to testify in favor of the proposal with a variety of perspectives. Many asked for the commissioner to have to presume that a stream is anadromous if there is no data, as the state’s Anadromous Waters Catalog only contains about half of the documented streams in Alaska.

The conversation continued during a joint meeting of the Board of Fisheries’ Legislative and Habitat committees on Nov. 29, held the night before the beginning of the board’s Lower Cook Inlet cycle meeting in Homer. Eight people testified in favor of the proposal, and three members of the board came up with a draft letter to send to the Legislature in favor of the proposal.

Board member Robert Ruffner, one of the three members who helped draft the letter, said the writers focused on the common points that multiple people mentioned throughout the comments.

“What the three of us did was we tried to think about the common themes we heard across the different areas of the state and different interest groups,” he said.

The draft, submitted to the board at its Lower Cook Inlet meeting, outlines three themes: improving the public notification and public comment process, the presumption of anadromous waters and the need for better defined enforceable standards.

“The board recognizes the broad responsibilities of the Legislature to promote economic development and the wise stewardship of resources for all Alaskans,” the draft letter states. “The board finds that clear delineation of Alaska’s unwavering promise to protect salmon and fisheries habitat establishes a consistent and predictable business environment that will help all individuals and corporations wishing to do business in Alaska.”

Lindsay Bloom, a fisheries consultant who submitted the proposal on behalf of the 13 authors, said she approves of the board’s draft letter.

“I think that they did a good job staying broad and giving the Legislature lots of room to take this concept forward and flesh out the detail,” she said. “I think that the themes they picked up on … totally capture what we were looking for with the proposal. “

Ron Halford, a former legislator and Alaska Senate president, testified to the board during the committee meeting on Nov. 29 in support of the proposal. One of the most important parts of improving the statute would be to include more public notification on proposed activities in fish habitats, perhaps using a geolocation system to ensure that neighbors know what is going on. Many small projects over time can do as much or more damage than the major projects, he said. Neighbors and local residents see habitat-damaging activities as they happen much better than a state agency can, he said.

Halford, who has spent most of his life in Alaska, said he remembers when the Mat-Su Valley had a population smaller than the current population of Kenai. At that time, people had more freedom to do what they wanted without risking as much damage to the habitat, he said. Today, with more than 750,000 people in Alaska and most of them concentrated in the Southcentral region, it’s just not possible to keep that same level of freedom without damage to the environment, he said.

“You have in the areas that have grown so much in the last 40 or 50 years, the Kenai Peninsula, the Mat-Su valley, a lot of pretty important habitat,” he said. “It’s not the big projects — it’s the magnitude in terms of little projects.”

The board won’t take action on the recommendation to the Legislature until at least January, when the members will meet again in Kodiak for the Kodiak Finfish meeting from Jan. 10–13. Though the members discussed it and received the draft letter by the end of the Lower Cook Inlet meeting, they did not have the chance to review it before receiving it during the miscellaneous business section of the agenda.

The limitations of the Open Meetings Act prevent the whole board from meeting outside the public meetings, so they did not have the chance to go over the draft’s contents before the Lower Cook Inlet meeting ended, said Glenn Haight, the executive director of the Board of Fisheries.

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