GUEST COMMENTARY: HB 77: The governor’s giveaway you haven’t heard of


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Gov. Sean Parnell is attempting a giveaway you may not hear about until it is too late. Last legislative session the administration introduced an innocuous sounding bill that they claimed would cut red tape and streamline the resource development approval processes. In reality, the bill, which passed the state House of Representatives as House Bill 77 amounts to a massive giveaway of resources owned by the people of Alaska and an obliteration of the public process.  

The governor’s bill also suspends tribal rights to reserve water for fish and human uses, gives nearly unchecked powers to unelected officials, and places land planning in a “black box” removed from public view and scrutiny.

Come January, the bill will once again be a high priority for DNR and the Parnell Administration, and may just be passed into law with the majority of the public whom it affects, unaware.

If you have heard of House Bill 77, you may have heard it termed as a streamlining bill, or simply a water reservations bill, but there is a whole lot more hidden in the lines.

The first freebie in this bill is the wholesale conveyance of authority to the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources to authorize development activities on state land through issuance of a general permit. General permits may be issued “if the commissioner finds that the activity is unlikely to result in significant and irreparable harm to state land or resources.”

There is no sufficiently clear definition of “significant or irreparable harm” nor clarity on how the commissioner will make that determination.

So, this bill would remove opportunities for local and public involvement in the process by allowing the commissioner to issue general permits for virtually any activity on state land without any requirements for public notice.

The second major problem with HB 77 is that it would make if harder for a person or an organization to appeal a DNR permit. The current standard is that the appellant must be “aggrieved” in some way. Under HB 77, an individual would need to be “substantially and adversely affected” by the proposed development. These terms are also open to interpretation, but no doubt create a higher bar for the public or fishermen to meet before they can appeal decisions affecting fisheries.

Thirdly, there is the issue of taking away Alaskan’s right to apply to reserve water in habitat for fish. Section 40 of HB 77 extinguishes the ability of organizations and individuals, including tribes and fishing groups, to apply for a reservation of water to maintain sufficient water flow for protection of various public interests. 

This takes away our ability to apply to the state to maintain water flow necessary for fish habitat. Reserving water within rivers and lakes to benefit fisheries, navigation, transportation and water quality is critical for sustainable fisheries and economic development in Alaska. Furthermore, the Alaska constitution requires that water is reserved to the people for common use (Article 8, Sec. 3). 

While organizations, individuals and corporations are allowed to apply to take water out of a system — why should we be stripped of our right to protect our interests by applying to keep water in?

Another gift to the DNR commissioner, Section 42 of HB77 would grant the commissioner the authority to issue an infinite number of new temporary water use authorizations (used almost exclusively by large non-Alaskan corporations) for the same project, with no public notice. This change would allow significant amounts of water to be used, for decades, with no opportunity for public comment or review.

The final giveaway in HB 77 authorizes the DNR commissioner to “exchange” (permanently give away) state land with private developers, in hopes that the development would eventually benefit the state. This new land giveaway authority would basically operate on good faith, with no guarantees or requirement holding developers to their promises.

So, this is just one bill in the state legislature: why do I care? I’m a commercial fisherman. I work in our state’s largest private sector industry, which also happens to depend in large part on the productive maintenance and preservation of a sustainable natural habitat.

This bill hands away many of the checks and balances that ensure a balance between my industry, and others in the state.

And finally, why should you care? Checks and balances are a necessary part of open, transparent and productive government. Granting more power to un-elected bureaucrats, and eliminating public processes never serves the interests of the people.

So whether you care about fish, clean water, Tribal rights, tourism, the fishing industry, or simply a clear and transparent government, please take the time to speak up for your rights, before it is too late: Call your state elected officials before January, and share your concern over HB77. Then ask your friends and family to do the same.

Katherine Carscallen is a lifelong commercial fisherman in Southwest Alaska, owning and operating a 32-foot gill-netter. In the off-season, she works to maintain and improve the viability of Bristol Bay’s world-class sockeye fishery.

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