Ballot measure aiming to protect salmon habitat divides Alaskans
On July 20, members of the Alaska Senate State Affairs Committee gathered to hear from representatives from a number of government agencies about the implementation and potential impact of Ballot Measure 1, the Salmon Habitat Protections and Permits Initiative, which goes to vote during the November general elections. The measure, which calls for a stricter permitting process for projects impacting anadromous fish habitats, has proven divisive among Alaskans.
Though the meeting was purely informative—committee members and presenters were forbidden from sharing their opinions—a point many agencies emphasized was that the new legislation would make their department’s work more time consuming and expensive. This included new regulations for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and new practices for maintenance and monitoring for the Department of Transportation and Public Works.
Outside the meeting, though, Alaskans’ opinions have not been constrained. For one, Senator Donny Olson is staunchly against Ballot Measure 1.
In an interview with The Nome Nugget, he said the proposed legislation is “too extreme” and the myriad of regulation changes will be “cumbersome” for small operations to keep up with and abide by. A specific concern for the Bering Strait region is that small inland mining claims using suction dredges would need permits, which they may or may not receive. “It will stifle, if not extinguish, mom and pop operations,” he said. While Olson has a strong position on the measure, Representative Neal Foster said in a statement that he has not formed an opinion yet, and “looks forward to hearing from both sides.”
Currently, ADF&G requires a permit for projects conducted on bodies of water listed in the Anadromous Waters Catalog. Anadromous fish include all fish that migrate between fresh and salt water, but the focus of the initiative is on salmon. However, the department estimates that only half of all salmon streams are listed. The biggest change is that, under the proposed legislation, a permit would be required for any activity that may “use, divert, obstruct, pollute, disturb or otherwise alter” the habitat of such fish, regardless of whether the body of water is listed in the catalog.
Should the ballot pass, after applying for a permit, the ADF&G commissioner would assess the habitat to determine whether the project could cause significant damage. If the answer is no, it would then be categorized as requiring either a major or a minor permit, depending on the potential impact on fish habitat. In another change, the commissioner would call for public comment periods on those projects deemed “major.”
Despite the upped regulations, Olson said another worry is that there is no proof that the bill would actually protect fish. Though the legislation has not changed since 1959, fish runs remain strong. Proponents of the initiative do not necessarily dispute this. According to the text of the ballot, the goal is to ensure sustainable fisheries for future generations. They believe this is not possible under current legislation, which the Yes for Salmon website describes as “ambiguous” and “vulnerable to political interference.”
While Olson said he understands the environmental concern, which “we should all have,” he is concerned that most of the people behind and in support of Ballot Measure 1 are not fisherman. Rather, they “need a purpose to crusade for,” he said. It was proposed by Yes for Salmon and Stand for Salmon and is heavily supported by environmental conservation groups.
The group Stand for Alaska was created in opposition to the initiative. This organization is backed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional Association, which represents the Alaska Native Regional Corporations, as well as several oil and gas companies. A Stand for Alaska press release contends that the measure is too extreme—a “regulatory nightmare,” that “poses a dangerous threat to Alaska’s economy, communities and jobs” by hindering both resource development and water and sewer projects. If passed, it could potentially impact projects such as the proposed Pebble mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska and the existing Red Dog mine north of Kotzebue.
The journey of the ballot thus far has not been straightforward. In September of last year Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott rejected the initiative’s application, deeming it unconstitutional. The petitioners appealed, and Mallott’s decision was overturned. To get onto the ballot, the initiative needed 32,127 valid signatures, a quota which the measure surpassed.