Parnell agrees to change controversial HB 77


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Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, shakes hands with Gov. Sean Parnell at the close of the 2013 legislative session. Micciche has taken the lead in revisions to House Bill 77 in response to opposition over revisions to water reservation rights and issuance of permits.

Photo/Becky Bohrer/AP

JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell has agreed to substantial changes to House Bill 77, his controversial land and water management reform bill that was pulled off the Senate floor on the final day of the 2013 session in the face of growing public opposition.

No written copy of the revised bill has been released, but changes disclosed by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, including removal of the ban on in-stream flow applications by persons, elimination of the broad new authority granted to the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and limits on the applicability of general permits.

Federally recognized tribes will also be empowered to apply for in-stream flow reservations, according Micciche, who has effectively become the floor manager for the rewrite process.

“We’ll see what it looks like in the final form,” Micciche cautioned Feb. 11.

The 24-page bill makes a broad range of mostly minor and unopposed changes in DNR land and water management and sales procedures.

Certain provisions giving the commissioner of DNR unprecedented discretion to issue general permits stalled the bill last April.

Stakeholders on both sides of the issue declined to say whether their positions would change until they see something on paper.

“I’m not going to comment on theoreticals. We’ve told folks we’re going to need a little time to study the changes,” said Rick Rogers, executive director of the Resource Development Council, on Feb. 17.

“What actually comes out is what we’re waiting for,” said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper on Feb. 18.

Shavelson said the opposition to the bill that stopped its passage last year is evidence of a “broken” permitting system.

“There’s big problems with our permitting system. It makes sense to have a broader discussion,” Shavelson said.

There have been no public committee discussions on HB 77 this year.

Micciche said he has reached agreement with DNR on several amendments to the bill. Sharon Leighow, the governor’s press secretary, confirmed Parnell’s support for the revisions.

“The proposed changes are coming from our office. They’re our changes,” Leighow wrote in an email interview on Feb. 13.

Ed Fogels, deputy DNR commissioner, confirmed his department’s support for the changes Micciche described.

Those include removal of the “not withstanding other sections of law” language in Section 1 of the bill, “so that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game can continue to regulate streams under Title 16,” Micciche said.

He added that the provision, “is replaced with clear regulatory sideboards for what a general permit can be, where it can be used.”

The significant increase in requirements for standing to challenge a DNR permit decision is being lowered from the governor’s original mark, but not removed.

The requirement that a party must show “significant and irreparable harm” from a project will be replaced by “significant or irreparable.”

Current law requires that a person be “aggrieved” by a permit approval.

“It does set a higher bar,” which he supports, Micciche acknowledged.

“Under ‘aggrieved’ you could be an (non-governmental organization) from San Francisco that just decides you can hear salmon crying in Alaska and you’re against this project and they would have a standing,” he said.

The change “means most Alaskans would have a leg to comment or somewhat oppose a project if it actually affects your life,” Micciche said.

He added that the coming amendment would allow challenges based on grounds not necessarily attached to a dollar amount.

“It could be an aesthetic or some other issue but it should be something where you’re directly affected, and I support that bar. I don’t think it should be a philosophical opposition to development, it should be a substantial opposition to development,” Micciche said.

“I don’t think it’s a dollars and cents thing. Substantially means you have to be substantially affected by a project.”

When the revised bill will be seen or considered at a hearing remains a mystery.

“Yet to be determined,” said Micciche, who sought and got a commitment from Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, that the bill would be sent to the Senate Resources Committee.

Huggins has declined to say why he hasn’t made the referral or when he would.

Bob Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at fishlawsbob@gmail.com.

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