Ballot Measure #1 – An Act Providing for the Protection of Wild Salmon & Fish & Wildlife Habitat…Know the Facts

by Dave Cannon

There is a lot of misinformation going around about the Ballot Measure #1, both from outside the Kuskokwim and from within; sadly, much of it is intentional.
Election Day is less than two weeks away, so it’s important for people to understand what’s at stake.
Don’t confuse Stand For Salmon with Stand For Alaska – they are two totally different entities. Stand For Salmon, which is supporting Ballot Measure #1 encourages you to vote YES for it on November 6; the other group opposes it.
Here’s a common lie that those opposing the measure say, “it does not fix the problems facing our salmon runs. None of that should come as a surprise since the measure was created and funded by Outsiders who have no vested interest in Alaska.”
That is the furthest thing from the truth! Over 40,000 Alaskans signed the petition to get this measure on the ballot. And the Alaska Journal of Commerce had this to say, “It should be noted that the Stand for Salmon sponsors did not stir this political hornets’ nest on their own. In January 2017 the Board of Fisheries wrote a letter to legislative leaders requesting revisions to Title 16. The seven-member board is comprised of individuals first appointed by pro-development Govs. Frank Murkowski, Sean Parnell and Walker.
“Additional guidance is warranted for the protection of fish, to set clear expectations for permit applicants and to reduce uncertainty in predevelopment planning costs,” the letter states. “To strengthen ADF&G’s implementation and enforcement of the permitting program, the legislature may want to consider creating enforceable standards in statute to protect fish habitat, and to guide and create a more certain permitting system.”
Even before that, in 2014 a group of 30 fisheries leaders from all across the state recommended to the Governor that the state should implement a sound fisheries policy based on scientific criteria rather than politics; these fisheries leaders represented subsistence, commercial, and sport interests.
As far as funding, I’m sure there are folks from other states, particularly fishermen (either commercial or sport and groups like Trout Unlimited), who care about our salmon and other fishes enough to contribute. It’s difficult for a grassroots effort in a state like ours, which has the 2nd smallest population of any state, to go against the giant international corporations who are funding the opposition. To date, Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Pebble Partnership, Donlin Gold, and other international companies have contributed well over $10 million in their opposition; Donlin Gold alone has contributed at least $1.2 million (both Barrick and Nova Gold are Canadian companies).
Stand For Alaska erroneously contends that the only problem Alaska faces regarding salmon occurs in the oceans, but we have, and have had, habitat issues for some time. A survey of the culverts in Southeast Alaska on the Tongass National Forest determined that 66% (179) of the culverts blocked the passage of salmon and steelhead while 85% blocked migration for trout and other species that don’t go to the ocean (531 of the 622 culverts evaluated).
Similarly, it’s estimated that in the Mat-Su Valley, half of all culverts are inadequate to pass salmon, while 500 of them pose problems for juveniles. So, to say that ocean conditions are the only thing we have to worry about in Alaska is flat out wrong.
But it’s not all outside interests stating mistruths about the fish habitat protection measure. A few weeks ago, at the AVCP convention, Calista folks urged those in attendance to vote No on Ballot Measure #1 for several reasons, such as: 1) No input. No public discussion.
The reason that this issue has become an initiative is because there have been numerous public hearings over the years to get the legislature to act on protecting anadromous fish habitat…but with no results. Here’s what Frank Rue, a fish habitat biologist and past Commissioner for Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) said: “I had hoped that during the last legislative session the fish habitat protection bill (House Bill 199) introduced by Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak would be the vehicle for the Alaskans to develop science-based standards for anadromous fish habitat protection. In my opinion, the give-and-take of the legislative process is a better way to develop policy than the initiative process. But there was no serious consideration of HB 199 by the Legislature.”
During the hearings on HB 199 there have been plenty of public meetings where public testimony was heard in the House Fisheries Committee alone.
Ironically, regarding the state’s current permitting process, there is No requirement for public involvement when issuing a fish habitat permit…and there are No requirements to provide public notices.
2) No Science.
There is relatively little science involved in the current fish habitat permitting process, and that’s part of the reason that the Board of Fisheries (BOF) suggested to the Governor that the State of Alaska incorporate some. As it stands now, the State must afford “proper protection” to permitted projects, but that term is unclear at best.
Here’s the BOF’s perspective that was sent to the legislature: “Under current law, the commissioner of ADF&G is directed to approve a fish habitat permit for a “proposed construction, work, or use…unless the commissioner finds the plans and specifications insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.” AS 16.05.871(d). Permits may be issued with little restriction because nothing in the statute or regulation defines what constitutes “the proper protection of fish and game.”
Over fifty retired state and federal biologists and managers signed a letter* supporting Ballot Measure #1 noting: 1) We recognize the inherent complexity of our salmon ecosystems, and while ocean conditions will continue to affect our salmon, increased development and use in our coastal watersheds – including large projects in sensitive areas – are a direct threat to healthy salmon runs now and in the future; 2) Alaska must modernize its outdated fish habitat protection law if we hope to maintain healthy salmon runs now and in the future; 3) Stand for Salmon Ballot Initiative 1 creates a reasonable balance between development and salmon habitat protection by adopting a series of well-considered standards for projects that may impact salmon habitat; and 4) Under the Alaska Constitution Article VIII, every Alaskan owns our public fish and water resources. Yet under current law, Alaskans have no right to public notice and comment on fish habitat permits.
And Calista representatives, at the AVCP Convention, inaccurately stated that Ballot Measure #1 would: “Stop or increases costs for fuel, sewage lagoons, and flush toilet systems.” This is similar to Don Young’s statement that if passed, Ballot Measure #1 would stop the construction of schools. Those are nothing but scare tactics meant to confuse or frighten people into voting against a measure that’s intended to help sustain our salmon runs far into the future.
Unfortunately, you’ll never get politics out of any permitting process. One contentious example was when in 2003, against the recommendation of five past ADF&G Commissioners, then Governor Frank Murkowski removed the Habitat Division from ADF&G and placed it under the Department of Natural Resources. Fortunately, Governor Palin moved it back in 2008.
By having established fish habitat regulations in place will reduce, and hopefully eliminate, long-term impacts to the salmon and other fishes that we rely so heavily on.
* Regarding the letter of support for Ballot Measure #1 by over 50 state and federal biologists or managers, a spokesperson for Stand For Alaska asserted that because there were so many federal retirees on the list, that it, “weakens its relevance”. Twenty of those 58 fall into the federal category – or only 34 percent. So that means that 66% had worked for the State of Alaska, which is a vast majority. And the insinuation is that federal biologists aren’t familiar with the needs of the salmon in regards to fish habitat relationships?
Most federal biologist are all too familiar with past and present habitat alteration or degradation, for we have worked for agencies like the Forest Service that, against our best efforts, allowed for the improper installation of culverts under timber roads in places like the Tongass National Forest…among other harmful practices.
Please, if you care about the salmon vote YES on Ballot Measure #1.
Dave Cannon is a resident of Aniak, AK.