A citizen initiative planned for the 2018 state ballot would be a sweeping overhaul of state habitat regulations.
Stand for Salmon is the group hoping to add some more definitions to the rules already in place regarding commercial development in and around salmon habitat.
Even standing a stone’s throw away from the Kenai river, it can be tough to get signatures for a ballot initiative meant to protect fish. I caught up with local fisherman and fisher poet Steve Schoonmaker outside the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building last week. Inside, there was about to be a salmon habitat policy forum hosted by UAF, so, no names were going into the book that night. But Schoonmaker says the conversation that followed is what’s important.
“All this really does is open a discussion statewide, which I think we really need. If the initiative gets through, we get it on the ballot, it opens a statewide discussion for all of us on this very important issue.”
Stand for Salmon is essentially an update to state codes. Specifically, Title 16. That’s the part that governs the Department of Fish and Game and, by extension, lays out some basic framework for permitting all sorts of projects.
The initiative would fully update the code and put specific definitions on things like what good fish habitat is. With those definitions in mind, the laws would disallow development from having a negative effect on those habitat areas.
That gets you to one of the first points of contention with the initiative.
If you hang around long enough at a majority of water bodies in the state, some three million lakes, 12,000 rivers and countless streams and creeks, you’ll eventually find fish or some evidence that fish have been through. So that scale of broadness is a sticking point for a lot of other groups.
Industry groups are opposed. But so are native groups like the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which is fighting against the Pebble mine. And not even all local fishermen are on board.
Jim Butler of Kenai spoke at that forum. He said the initiative doesn’t do enough to address current habitat issues.
“The Kenai river has had turbidity problems for years. And the Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t do anything. That has nothing to do with this Title 16 issue. But salmon are swimming through turbid waters and we know there are Clean Water Act violations and rest of it. So to me, we’re not fixing all the problem. We’re focusing on one thing.”
One of the main arguments for the initiative is that it would give the Department of Fish and Game more direction and more authority when it comes to permitting.
Valerie Brown is an attorney for the Trustees of Alaska, a non-profit environmental law firm. She says the current laws don’t give the department enough options to say no.
“If (Fish and Game) were to decide that something caused so much damage that they didn’t think it should be permitted, there’s no legal framework for them to ever do that. Permitting is always the default in Alaska right now.
Another issue, Brown says and the initiative addresses, is public notice. It’s a lengthy and expensive process to get a water body listed in the state’s anadromous streams catalog. Once there, its subject to greater protection. But even after its listed, Brown says there’s not enough opportunity for the public to weigh in if a project is going to affect one of those water bodies.
“If you are a member of a community where there’s going to be a large project, unless you call Fish and Game pretty consistently and keep yourself on their radar and ask to be notified, you don’t know that they’re going through a fish permitting process, what the potential permittee wants to do. You don’t get any notice after it’s permitted. So that’s another fundamental flaw in the law that could definitely be fixed.”
Senator Peter Micciche was on that same panel. His take is that Stand for Salmon, as a voter initiative, leaves too many people out of the conversation. A better alternative, he says, is to keep working on legislation currently on the table that addresses many of the same concerns. That would allow people and groups from different sides of the issue to weigh in.
“We have so many experts available to us in Juneau and we can evaluate the unintended consequences in both directions and formulate a better piece of legislation than what happens when you slap it on the ballot and you have something that says Stand for Salmon. It’s like saying it’s for the kids. Of course I’m for salmon. In my view, it’s disingenuous and it’s an ineffective way to have a respectful discussion.”
In order to get on the 2018 ballot, Stand for Salmon has to get 32,000 signatures before the regular legislative session starts on January 16th.