The salmon initiative: Habitat protecter, or job killer?

MGN PHOTO: Salmon underwater
MGN PHOTO: Salmon underwater(KMVT)
Published: Oct. 4, 2018 at 6:46 PM AKDT
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Is Ballot Measure 1, the salmon initiative, a habitat protector or a job killer?

Supporters say it’s a healthy and necessary revision to Alaska’s habitat laws, which are decades old.

Opponents say it will impose tedious rules and make some projects impossible to start.

The law created by the measure is eight pages long and would be available to voters at the ballot-box. A “neutral” summary, prepared by the Alaska Division of Elections, makes for dense reading as well, though it’s quite a bit shorter.

Why change things now? Ryan Schryver, director of Stand for Salmon, a major backer of the initiative, says that recent low runs of returning salmon show that changes are needed.

“The reasons for the declines are complex. But what all of the scientists tell us is that when your salmon are under pressure, the most important thing is to make sure they have healthy habitat to return to,” he said.

On the other side, Kati Capozzi, campaign manager for Stand for Alaska, agrees that recent runs have been poor. But she says that scientists are blaming warming, acidifying oceans, not freshwater habitat, for the losses. In fact, she says, Alaskans have been good stewards of the things they can control, like freshwater habitat, and there’s no need to change now.

“Ballot Measure 1 is bad for jobs, it’s bad for the economy, bad for private property owners and last, but certainly not least, it doesn’t do a single thing to fix the problems that we’re having (with) our salmon in Alaska,” she said.

The new law directs the state to assume that all streams, lakes and wetlands support salmon unless proven otherwise. It provides for three kinds of permits for activity that would disturb habitat — a general permit that could be issued for an entire region and would allow anyone in that region to do things like cross a river with an all-terrain vehicle. Unlike the general permits in a law proposed by former Gov. Sean Parnell, these permits would allow for public notice before being issued.

Development projects would require one of two permits: a “minor” permit for small disturbances that would be relatively easy to obtain, and a “major” permit, which would be much more difficult. Under the law, the proposed Pebble Mine, above Bristol Bay, might be impossible to permit, as would the proposed Chuitna coal mine on the west side of Cook Inlet.

The proposed law provides for misdemeanor criminal penalties and civil fines that can increase daily for violations. It also “grandfathers” existing projects — if they’re currently legal, they would remain legal unless they are changed or their permit expires.

Capozzi said the permit requirements are too rigid and difficult for companies to comply, which explains why some resource companies, Native corporations and labor organizations are opposing the measure.

“The large contributors to the campaign are companies that have spent billions of dollars investing in the state, they’ve contributed billions in revenue to the state, in many cases. And they also hire tens of thousands of Alaskans, so they certainly have a lot at risk,” she said.

But, Schryver said that Alaskans also value salmon and clean habitat.

“This initiative is about making sure we have healthy habitat standards in place to ensure a thriving salmon population for the future,” he said.

Correction: This story was corrected to add the words "or the permit expires" to the paragraph about "grandfathered" permits.