Fish politics are a focal point this election season. A statewide ballot initiative seeking to change the state’s habitat protection laws for salmon is getting all sorts of public debate, in the news, on television and radio commercials and, in local forums.
Thursday night, a panel of scientists and others involved in habitat and land management met to discuss salmon habitat. But you can’t have that discussion these days without diving into the merits of Prop 1, asking if voters stand for salmon or Alaska.
As panel discussions go, this one didn’t wade into the dramatic waters of argument really at all. All the panelists agree salmon habitat is delicate and important, development is inevitable, and the state could do a better job of respecting one while accommodating the other. That’s the aim of the statewide ballot measure. One side asks voters to stand for salmon and vote yes. That would amend the state’s current and, relatively old habitat protection laws and raise the bar of responsibility for developers, especially for large scale projects, like the Chuitna coal mine on the west side of Cook Inlet or the Pebble Mine.
Patti Berkhahn recently retired from the Department of Fish and Game where, among other jobs over the years, she worked in the permitting section. She says the laws on the books work well for smaller projects. A bridge here, a culvert there, where adjustments can be made to ensure both healthy fish habitat and, equally important, fish passage to spawning grounds and keep projects moving ahead. But there are limits, given the restrictions of current law.
“The current habitat laws, they’re pretty effective for the small projects; mom and pop on the river doing their spruce tree revetments, they work really well for that. It’s the large projects, they don’t work at all. And I thought in my tenure there, if something like Pebble Mine came across my desk, I’d probably have to quit because I couldn’t, in my right mind, issue a permit for something like that. That’s where we need help, and it’s just now that we’re getting these big permits on the horizon.”
She says other big projects, like the long-proposed Susitna dam, haven’t gotten off the ground because of vocal opposition from Alaskans, but that won’t always be enough to divert the inevitable march of development.
“But, you know, Donlin (gold mine) was just issued permits. Can we stop them? Probably not, but maybe we can get them to do it somewhere else or somehow do it a little more environmentally friendly, get the public involved to speak. I don’t know how we can actually stop these big projects, and we can’t. But we are moving forward in the right direction.”
By way of maintaining and rehabilitating other areas that aren’t squarely in the sights for resource developers. But also by maintaining a culture based around salmon. Salmon runs have been gone so long in parts of the Lower 48, that the culture has gone with them, adding to the challenge of reviving dormant rivers. That culture remains strong here. So strong, in fact, that Native Alaskans’ millenia-long relationship with salmon can still be seen all over.
Tune in Monday for a tour of Denai'ina fish caches still easily seen behind Kenai Peninsula College.