Alaskans are once again fighting over fish. This time the fight is centered around a proposed ballot initiative that seeks to change the way state officials handle water-quality permits for development projects around salmon and other anadromous fish habitat.
Ballot Measure One — also known as Stand for Salmon — would change the State of Alaska’s water-quality permitting standards around streams and other waterways in ways that would make it far more difficult to permit any project with the potential to disrupt anadromous fish habitat. The initiative goes further, imposing a legal presumption that all Alaska rivers and streams are anadromous fish habitat unless the state can prove otherwise.
For some, any development is too much. For obvious reasons, that’s a viewpoint more common outside of Alaska. For those who live and work here, though, protection and production have always gone hand in hand. Natural resources have always provided the foundation for our economy, we depend on them to provide for our families both economically and culturally today and for the future.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADFG) process for reviewing permit applications and for developing mitigation plans is working. Alaska has a well-deserved reputation for having some of the nation’s most stringent water-quality standards and ADFG’s experienced fish experts have shown themselves to be careful stewards of our shared resources.
As written, the initiative severely restricts ADFG’s ability to use mitigation to reduce the impact of development. The new rule would apply to all waters that support fish species that migrate between fresh and salt water, including everything from salmon to sheefish.
Our ability to prosper off the bounty that this land provides — from fish to minerals, from tourism to timber to oil and gas — is central to who we are as Alaskans. For decades, the responsible development of Alaska’s abundant natural resources has delivered good jobs, a high standard of living, quality public education and other essential public services.
Despite this year’s struggles and closures, there’s no evidence the state’s habitat management practices need the kind of overhaul Ballot Measure 1 implements. Our returns are challenged across species, across age classes, and across watersheds. This is an important message: the problem doesn’t appear to be in the onshore habitat but is more likely a problem at sea.
The changes mandated by Ballot Measure 1 would not address the underlying causes of what is affecting salmon populations in the ocean. Targeting development projects on land, as the ballot initiative attempts to do, doesn’t address the systemic issues coming out of the ocean. The ballot measure would, however, tie the hands of experts at the Department of Fish and Game, making economic development and basic infrastructure projects more expensive, if not impossible, to permit.
We should be wary of measures – particularly those foisted upon us through the public ballot initiative process — that seek to pit one resource-user group against another in the name of conservation. It is one thing to be good stewards of the lands and waters that provide for us, it’s something else to restrict our own ability to develop a diverse economy and continue to build a better Alaska for the future.
The question at stake in November is whether we can be trusted with the responsibility to care of this great land. It’s a question that has been asked a multitude of times dating back to before Alaska won statehood in 1959. The answer is the same today as it was decades ago: no one knows better how to manage this land than the people who live here.
Joe Connors is a University of Alaska Anchorage professor emeritus, retired U.S. Army captain, and a former set-netter. He has lived in Alaska since 1970 and is the owner of Big Sky Charter & Fish camp, a fishing lodge on the Kenai River.