COMMENTARY: Political shifts underscore need for habitat initiative
I have been thinking long and hard about the salmon habitat ballot initiative that will be on Alaska’s November ballot. I served as director of the Habitat Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for seven years under Govs. Steve Cowper and Wally Hickel, and as commissioner of the department for eight years under Gov. Tony Knowles.
I, and the professional biologists who work at Fish and Game, implemented the current anadromous fish habitat statutes.
All three administrations I worked for had strong advocates for salmon and anadromous fish habitat. I am confident that we did a good job of protecting anadromous fish habitat. So, what has changed to make me want to see the Stand for Salmon ballot initiative pass?
The initiative puts clear, science-based salmon habitat standards in statute and provides for a robust public process when resource development decisions that could have significant negative impacts on salmon habitat are made. These standards are the principles we used when we made decisions, but they had no assured standing beyond our tenure.
Without clear science-based standards, each person’s judgment as to what constitutes “proper protection” can be different. Some administrations have shown strong support for salmon habitat protection. Others have emphasized competing uses over salmon.
For example, Gov. Frank Murkowski’s administration went so far as to move the habitat division from the Department of Fish and to the Department of Natural Resources so the commissioner of DNR, not the Fish and Game commissioner, would be the ultimate judge of what constitutes “proper protection” of anadromous fish habitat.
The Department of Fish and Game had help protecting fish habitat when I was there. We had the Coastal Management Program. There is no longer a Coastal Management Program in Alaska. The Legislature allowed it to expire.
The Coastal Management Program provided habitat standards, local government participation, public involvement and an interagency process for resolving differences and finding ways for development projects to move ahead (or not) while protecting fish and other important resources. That is gone, and Fish and Game anadromous fish permits don’t require public notice.
Many of Alaska’s salmon stocks are now stressed by changing ocean conditions. As global warming continues to affect ocean and freshwater salmon habitat, it is particularly important that Alaska protect freshwater anadromous fish habitat so we maintain salmon productivity and genetic diversity.
Protecting freshwater habitat is something Alaska can do without help from anyone else. Managing ocean conditions will require federal policy initiatives. But, if Alaska takes care of our freshwater habitat, salmon will have a better chance to adapt to the long-term changes they face.
The users of Alaska salmon and the developers of Alaska’s other natural resources, should not have to depend on me — or any individual — to use their judgment on a case-by-case basis to interpret the vague “proper protection” standard of the current anadromous fish habitat statute. They deserve science-based statutory standards, like those in the initiative, to clearly define what constitutes “proper protection” of anadromous fish habitat.
I had hoped that during the last legislative session the fish habitat protection bill (House Bill 199) introduced by Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak would be the vehicle for Alaskans to develop science-based standards for anadromous fish habitat protection. In my opinion, the give-and-take of the legislative process is a better way to develop policy than the initiative process. But there was no serious consideration of HB 199 by the Legislature.
The state Constitution gives the people of Alaska the initiative process to use the ballot box to address important issues when the Legislature fails to act. If this initiative passes, the Legislature has the ability to immediately clarify language in the initiative if necessary, and in two years, the Legislature can amend, or even go so far as to repeal, the initiative.
Despite what I view as drawbacks in the initiative process, it is my hope that this initiative passes. The Department of Fish and Game can then work with the public and all affected interests to implement regulations.
If during that process there are significant issues raised, or problems found, the department and the governor can work with the public and the legislature to amend the statute to address those issues.
Without the stimulus of this ballot initiative, I do not think the Legislature will give the Department of Fish and Game strong, clear, science-based anadromous fish habitat standards and a robust public process that I think are needed to keep Alaska’s wild salmon healthy and sustainable in the face of climate change and ongoing development pressure.
For these reasons, I will be voting “yes” on the salmon habitat initiative in November.
Frank Rue lives in Juneau. He was Habitat Director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from 1988-1994. He served as the Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game from 1995-2002.