Salmon bill could replace initiative before November

 Capitol Building in Juneau, Alaska
Capitol Building in Juneau, Alaska (KTUU)
Published: Jan. 23, 2018 at 6:35 PM AKST
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A bill now in a House committee could stop the salmon habitat initiative from making it to the ballot in November — but only if the bill passes both the House and Senate before the end of session and is signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker.

Both the initiative and the House bill, HB 199, would protect salmon habitat and create a new permitting system for miners, drillers, road builders and others who want to change a salmon stream. Both the bill and

would likely stop the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay, and probably the proposed Donlin Mine north of the Kuskokwim River near the village of Crooked Creek.

The mining proposals involve huge open pits and long-term waste-rock storage. The projects would interfere with salmon, and the bill says developers can’t just propose swapping hatchery fish for wild ones.

Rep. Louise Stutes, the chairwoman of the House Fisheries Committee and prime sponsor of the bill, ordered a hearing on the bill Tuesday morning. Originally introduced last March, it underwent big changes in a new version released at the hearing.

New versions are exactly the point of a bill, as opposed to a fixed initiative, Stutes said in an interview.

“I think that with the bill, there’s compromise,” said Stutes, a Republican from Kodiak in the House majority coalition. “We’ve been talking to stakeholders, we’ve been talking to different departments within the state and we’re able to come to a meeting of the minds, one way or the other. Whereas when you see an initiative, what you see is what you get, essentially, for at least two years,” she said, referring to the amount of time an initiative has to be left intact before it can be amended in the Legislature.

In a normal year, Stutes said, the Alaska Senate might not support the salmon habitat House bill — the bill might clash with pro-development Republicans there who would object to any kind of a new permit system or an outright ban on blocking salmon streams. But the threat of the less-compromising initiative, which so far has strong support among voters, could motivate the Senate to act, Stutes said.

The state constitution says that if the Legislature passes a bill similar to an initiative, the initiative “is void.”

“With the initiative hanging out there, I think it gives the will to come and sit down at the table with the Senate,” Stutes said.

Rep. Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican and minority House member on the fisheries committee, agreed that Alaskans hadn’t seen the final version of the bill yet.

Chenault, a candidate for governor, is as close to the oil industry as he is to the commercial, sport and personal use fisherman in his district. He said he hoped the bill wouldn’t be “a job killer” and that a final version would take other industries into consideration

“And the issue is what effect it seems to have on any future mining project, whether they’re Mom and Pop or whether they’re big, what effects it might have on DOT moving roads, what effect it may have on municipalities,” Chenault said in an interview after the hearing. “We need to look at this to make sure we know what the concerns that are trying to be addressed, and see if we can address them or not.”

Salmon activist Melanie Brown delivered thousands of cards from Alaskans in support of Stutes’ bill.

“It’s important for me to maintain a state that has salmon in abundance and not go the way of other states on the West Coast and other countries in the world that once had abundant salmon populations,” she said.

In explaining the new version of the bill Stutes aide Matthew Gruening said the permitting system shouldn’t be considered onerous because most permits would be quick to obtain.

“It creates a two-tier permitting scheme,” he said. “There’s a minor anadromous habitat permit, and a major anadromous habitat permit. Just for the purpose of clarification, one of the things that we’ve been hearing a lot of people that focus on the major anadromous permit. About 80 percent of those permits would be minor, and the commissioner can make a determination that it’s a minor permit and issue the permit the same day.”