By Dave Atcheson
I would first like to thank Sen. Peter Micciche for scheduling hearings in Soldotna and Homer, Dec. 9 and 10, on the controversial House Bill 77, especially after the Department of Natural Resources canceled its own hearings, in what many see as a deliberate attempt to keep the public in the dark and at bay.
This bill, a bill that the governor is pushing and that is currently lingering in the Alaska Legislature, is expected to be taken up during the next legislative session. It is a bill that a large number of people have proclaimed to be an outright assault on our fisheries. Many even characterize it as an assault on our very rights as citizens. While that language may sound strong, when one delves into this long and unwieldy piece of legislation, it is a characterization that is difficult to dispute.
Probably the most alarming aspect of House Bill 77 is the massive concentration of power it bestows upon just one person. The commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, if this contentious piece of legislation passes, would have unprecedented powers to issue general permits for just about any activity on state land.
Under current law, Alaskans are given notice and have an opportunity to comment on impacts to water, fish and human health. This bill would make preliminary notice and a comment period no longer mandatory in many cases, basically silencing the citizenry and taking away our say on many issues, issues that could easily have an affect on our daily lives.
Another very concerning aspect of this bill is that it attempts to significantly curtail citizens’ ability to apply for water reservations. Until now any citizen or group could apply for water reservations, which simply means maintaining enough water in a particular stream or river to protect traditional use of our natural resources. In many cases these are fisheries that have been used over long periods of time by sport and subsistence fishers.
The proponents of this bill say it streamlines permitting.
However, if it passes Alaskan citizens could only apply for water reservations through a public entity, such as a borough or municipality. What this does is create an additional layer of bureaucracy for ordinary Alaska citizens, while large outside corporations need only ask the commissioner of DNR for the rights to use our water and land, and in many cases without notice to us or without allowing us to comment.
Much of Alaska’s reputation has been built upon our world-class fisheries and the sustainability of our natural resources. Our commercial and sport fisheries employ 63,000 Alaskans and last year generated more than $2 billion in income. Our U.S. senators and governor regularly travel out of state and even overseas touting the health of our fisheries and our supposedly rigorous permitting process that maintains them, but with this bill we are on the verge of heading down the same road to ruin so many other states have traveled, where our fisheries and our voices take a back seat to lobbyists, large corporations, and special interests.
Most Alaskans would agree that clear and concise permitting is a good thing, but this bill would leave Alaskans out in the cold, without a voice, and unable to weigh in when it came to protecting our own property and access to our resources. It is government overreach at its worst, putting state and Outside interests ahead of local communities.
Gov. Parnell says his House Bill 77 will streamline permitting, but what this fish-killing bill does in actuality is streamline every Alaskan out of the process, and it needs to be stopped.
All Alaskans should contact their state senators and urge them to do everything in their power to halt this piece of misguided legislation before our fisheries and our reputation suffers the same ill fate that so many around the world have suffered. The time to act is now to protect our fisheries and our rights.
Dave Atcheson is a freelance writer and author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.” He works with Trout Unlimited Alaska, protecting our state’s coldwater fisheries