Salmon stakeholders split over ballot initiative
Opinions on the salmon habitat initiative officially dubbed Ballot Measure 1 are about as diverse as Alaska’s fisheries.
About the only thing uniform in the environmental policy debate is the resource development industry’s collective opposition to it.
Nearly, but not all, of the 12 Alaska Native regional corporations oppose it; Bristol Bay Native Corp. has maintained a neutral position on the voter initiative for most of 2018 after CEO Jason Metrokin originally said the company was against it.
Commonly known as the Stand for Salmon initiative, Ballot Measure 1 is seen by many as a way to stop the controversial Pebble mine in Western Alaska, which BBNC has long and vigorously opposed.
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 would be required for larger projects such as mines, dams and anything determined to potentially have a significant impact on salmon-bearing water.
Mitigation measures would be acceptable as long as they are implemented on the impacted stream or wetland area.
A series of public notices and comment periods would also be added to the salmon habitat permit adjudication process; it is currently one of the few public resource-use permits issued by the State of Alaska that does not provide an avenue for public input.
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, they argue would set high but transparent permitting standards that are necessary to protect salmon resources that are already being stressed by multiple factors.
While Alaska Native corporations are mostly against Ballot Measure 1 and are actively fighting it as members of Stand for Alaska–Vote No on 1, many of their shareholders feel differently.
Stand for Salmon, one of the nonprofits leading the advocacy for the initiative, lists 21 Alaska Tribes, Tribal consortiums and other Alaska Native organizations such as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. and the Bristol Bay Native Association as supporters on its website.
A separate list identifies roughly 200 Alaska businesses and organizations — many fishing-focused, many not — as supporters as well.
Conversely, Stand for Alaska touts a coalition of more than 500 businesses and trade groups in opposition to Ballot Measure 1. The list of those opposed includes the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, which represents some of the largest companies in Alaska’s fishing industry, although some of them focus on species other than salmon.
PSPA officials declined to go into much detail about their position on Ballot Measure 1, but noted the group has long been against natural resource management via voter initiative and highlighted its opposition Pebble mine.
United Fishermen of Alaska, the largest trade organization in the state representing a broad spectrum of fishing industry and marine-related members, voted to remain neutral on Ballot Measure 1, according to UFA Executive Director Frances Leach.
Leach said in an interview that the complexity of the initiative led to the middle-ground vote at the group’s fall meeting.
“We would like to see natural resource groups work together to foster a collaborative approach to preserving our Alaska water resources and habitat,” Leach said, adding that if the initiative is voted down on Nov. 6, UFA wants the Legislature to take up the issue of updating the state’s salmon habitat protections again.
UFA sent a letter to legislative leaders in March 2017 urging them to make changes to Title 16, which hasn’t been revised since statehood — a primary reason many cite for supporting Ballot Measure 1.
UFA’s letter followed a letter from the state Board of Fisheries to House Speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon and Senate President Sen. Pete Kelly in January 2017, urging them to revise Title 16. The board specifically requested changes that would allow for public participation in habitat permitting and enforceable standards for the Department of Fish and Game to evaluate development proposals against.
The board’s letter spurred House Fisheries Committee Chair and Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes to introduce House Bill 199 — which the initiative largely mirrors the original version — in early 2017. However, HB 199 did not move out of Stutes’ committee after more than a year of discussion and revision.
Other than Israel Payton of Wasilla, Board of Fisheries members were generally reluctant to discuss their thoughts on Ballot Measure 1.
Payton said in an interview that he would certainly prefer the issue of further protecting salmon habitat be handled through the legislative process, but said he would be voting for the initiative.
“Of course, everyone on the board is pro-fish; I think everyone is kind of pro-development as well,” said Payton, who noted he has worked at North Slope oil fields and now is in real estate development.
Payton said he finds a provision in the initiative that would put the onus on project proponents to prove the waters they propose to impact are not salmon habitat as particularly beneficial.
ADFG Habitat Division officials estimate roughly half of the state’s anadromous fish habitat has been identified and therefore receives additional permitting protections under Title 16.
“At the end of the day I have to believe some stronger habitat protections have to be a good thing,” Payton said.
Board member John Jensen, who was chairman when the Title 16 letter was written to the Legislature and owns a boat rental business in Petersburg, said he will be voting “no” on Nov. 6.
Jensen, who is also a board member for the Southeast Alaska Power Agency, said he doesn’t believe there is enough science supporting the provisions in Ballot Measure 1.
“I think we should take better care of our fish streams but naming every stream and creek a salmon stream is problematic,” he said.
Jensen added that he believes the initiative was generated from anti-Pebble sentiment, but it could add roadblocks for developing and maintaining Southeast’s power grid.
Robert Ruffner and board chair Reed Morisky both withheld how they will be voting on Ballot Measure 1. Ruffner, a former leader of the nonprofit Kenai Watershed Forum said he, too, would prefer the Legislature deal with fish habitat issues, but acknowledged legislators have been dealing with more pressing budget issues in recent years.
He said he does not want his position to be used by either side of the Ballot Measure 1 debate.
“It’s really important that we protect our habitat by some mechanism and unfortunately the initiative process brings out rhetoric on both sides,” Ruffner added.
Morisky, a fishing guide from Fairbanks, said “everything in that letter is still how I feel about it,” but like Ruffner said revealing how he feels about the initiative would detract from the more important debate.
Morisky noted that he is a lifetime member of Trout Unlimited, which strongly supports the initiative, but also has spent time working on the North Slope. He will continue to advocate for a legislative solution.
“I might not know until I get in there behind the curtain,” he said on how he will vote on Ballot Measure 1.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].