Initiative sponsors turn in signatures as BBNC shifts to neutral
Advocates of strengthening Alaska’s salmon habitat protection took a big step forward when they dumped roughly 49,500 signatures on the front desk of the Division of Elections Anchorage office Jan. 16.
The signatures from Alaskans statewide were collected by Stand for Salmon, the nonprofit aimed at reforming anadromous fish habitat permitting requirements via the ballot initiative they’ve dubbed “Yes for Salmon.”
Early morning drizzle and icy roads didn’t damper the spirits of about 20 initiative backers that gathered outside the Division of Elections to be ready to submit the signatures for certification as soon as the state offices opened at 8 a.m.
Jan. 16, the start of the legislative session, was the last day to hand the petition booklets in and get the initiative on the 2018 ballot. It was also the day that Bristol Bay Native Corp., a major opponent of the Pebble mine, revised its stance on the initiative from against to neutral.
While the signature hurdle is a big one, the initiative still faces stiff opposition from industry groups and the State of Alaska.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott first rejected the initiative on the advice of the Department of Law because the state’s lawyers deemed it would appropriate Alaska’s water resources for salmon habitat — the state Constitution requires resource allocation be left to the Legislature — and therefore be unconstitutional.
After Mallott’s ruling was appealed and overturned in Superior Court, the state took its turn to appeal to the Supreme Court in October. Oral Arguments in the case are now set for April 26.
“This is a promising moment for all Alaskans. Tens of thousands of Alaskans from Nome to Ketchikan, from every single legislative district, have said that we want the opportunity to reflect a true balance between responsible development and protection of salmon,” said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, an initiative sponsor and director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Quinn-Davidson replaced Bristol Bay lodge owner Brian Kraft, an original sponsor, after Kraft stepped away from the campaign in November for personal reasons, according to Stand for Salmon representatives.
Sponsors are required to gather signatures from registered voters equal to at least 10 percent of number of voters in the previous election from 32 of the 40 House districts in the state. For 2018 initiatives that meant getting 32,127 signatures, according to the Division of Elections. Campaign workers said they set a goal of 45,000 to account for unqualified signatures and were proud to have gathered the required amount in all 40 districts.
Specifically, the initiative seeks to overhaul Title 16, the Department of Fish and Game’s statutory directive on how to evaluate development projects in salmon habitat.
Current law directs the Fish and Game commissioner to issue a development permit as long as a project provides “proper protection of fish and game.”
The sponsors contend that is far too vague and an update is needed to just define what “proper protection” means.
The initiative would, among other things, establish two tiers of development permits that could be issued by the Department of Fish and Game.
“Minor” habitat permits could be issued quickly and generally for projects deemed to have an insignificant impact on salmon waters.
“Major” permits for larger projects such as mines, dams and anything determined to potentially have a significant impact on salmon-bearing waters would require the project sponsor to prove the project would not damage salmon habitat.
Mitigation measures would be acceptable as long as they are implemented on the impacted stream or wetland area.
Additionally, the project sponsor would have to prove that impacted waters are not salmon habitat during any stage of the fish life cycle if the waters are connected to proven salmon habitat in any way but not yet listed in the state’s Anadromous Waters Catalog.
The sponsors insist it is not aimed to stop development projects; rather, it would set high but transparent permitting standards that are necessary to protect salmon resources that are already being stressed by multiple factors, they contend.
Even if it wins at the Supreme Court, a laundry list of resource development, unions and trade groups, along with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional Association (made up of the 12 Native regional corporations) and the Alaska Chamber have formed an opposition group called Stand for Alaska.
That group has already received contributions totaling $147,000 according to an Alaska Public Offices Commission report. Stand for Salmon has collected $271,000 as of Jan. 7 according to APOC with the biggest donor the Alaska Conservation Foundation at $60,000.
Opponents contend the initiative would decimate the state’s economy and make even the smallest projects — down to road repairs — extremely difficult if not impossible to permit.
SFA co-chair Joey Merrick of the Laborers’ Local 341, who is also a member of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board of directors, said in a press release that the initiative poses a risk to his members’ jobs.
“Alaska already is in a serious recession with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. The last thing we need is more expensive, time consuming, and unnecessary policies that cost Alaskans their livelihoods,” Merrick said.
AGDC President Keith Meyer has argued that the initiative would prevent the construction of the Alaska LNG Project, and Gov. Bill Walker has also expressed opposition to the measure.
Walker said the initiative is too broad in its scope and it could hamper nearly every area of project development in the state.
“I think when you’re making definitions that impact development of projects in Alaska and you do that through the initiative process — I was very concerned about that,” he said in a Dec. 22 interview with the Journal. “I would like there to be a discussion back and forth; hearings in the appropriate hearing rooms in Juneau and various folks being able to weigh in.”
BBNC changes stance on initiative
The Jan. 16 press release from Stand for Alaska lists Bristol Bay Native Corp. among the dozens of corporations, trade groups and chambers of commerce opposing the initiative, but that list may need to be revised.
BBNC is no longer against the initiative, but is not for it, either.
CEO Jason Metrokin said in a Jan. 16 statement to the Journal that “BBNC has been and continues to be neutral on the initiative; neither opposing it nor supporting it. The ANCSA Regional Association as a body took its own action in opposing the initiative. BBNC and other ANCSA regional corporations are discussing ways to improve Title 16; changes that would improve salmon habitat protection but not preclude responsible development projects.”
Metrokin, in an October statement to the Journal, reemphasized the corporation’s longstanding opposition to the Pebble mine project, but also said that BBNC “did not support (House Bill) 199 last legislative session and cannot support the Stand for Salmon ballot initiative. Each would unnecessarily and negatively impact resource development projects and potentially the subsistence activities upon which our shareholders rely depend.”
Metrokin continued to note in October that the Native corporation wants to work with the Walker administration and the Legislature to “appropriately update Title 16’s anadromous fish habitat provisions.”
The ANCSA Regional Association, with a board comprised of the 12 regional corporation leaders and Alaska Federation of Natives head Julie Kitka, voted unanimously to oppose the initiative in July, according to an October op-ed penned by CIRI CEO Sophie Minich and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. CEO Rex Rock.
Other media outlets subsequently reported in November that BBNC opposed the proposed ballot measure as well.
BBNC issued a press release Jan. 5 urging the Legislature to revise Title 16 and stressing the company’s positions on salmon habitat and other resource issues are grounded in a belief that decisions about how to balance uses of competing resources should always start with putting “fish first.”
“The protections in Title 16 help ensure that development projects do not threaten Alaska’s anadromous fisheries. It is imperative that Alaska periodically review and update those statutes. This has not been done in nearly 60 years. It is time for the Legislature to do so,” the Jan. 5 release concludes.
Shortly thereafter, BBNC board of directors member H. Robin Samuelsen Jr. told the Journal there was a “misunderstanding” between Metrokin and board members regarding the corporation’s stance on the initiative, but referred further questions to BBNC executives. Those questions led to the Jan. 16 statement.
Democrat House Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham has said the House Majority will hold hearings on House Bill 199 this session to gather information on how Title 16 can be improved with input from those that oppose the initiative and the current version of HB 199. The bill language largely mirrors that found in the initiative and Edgmon has said he does not expect it to pass this session because of the consternation the initiative has caused.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.