Two recent decisions prove why we need the Stand for Salmon Ballot Measure 1

by Bob Shavelson

In the lead-up to the Labor Day holiday weekend, when Alaskans were distracted with camping and hunting and fishing plans, our State government quietly issued two decisions which show exactly why we need to pass the Stand for Salmon Ballot Measure 1—to take politics out of our permitting system and to modernize our old, ineffective fish habitat protection law.

First, the politics. On August 29, DNR Commissioner Andy Mack denied a petition filed by local Alaskans to reserve water in a stream to protect wild salmon on the west side of Cook Inlet.

The Chuitna Citizens Coalition fought for over 9 years to secure what’s called an instream flow reservation to ensure wild salmon had enough water to survive impacts from a giant coal strip mine.

After years of foot-dragging, appeals and court orders, DNR denied the Chuitna Citizens’ request, and used some outrageous legal gymnastics to rationalize its illegal conduct.

But the real story here is why our own state government went to such great lengths to break the law designed to give Alaskans the right to keep water in streams for wild salmon.

The short answer is because the Alaska Miners Association (AMA) believes big corporations should have the legal right to take water out of our salmon streams for industrial development, but everyday Alaskans shouldn’t be allowed to keep water in our fish streams.

The hypocrisy gets thick. Here’s what the AMA’s Deantha Crockett had to say:

“I can’t stress enough that it’s fundamental the state should never delegate authority of water to a private party.”

Yet big mining, oil and gas corporations privatize our public waters all the time, when they take water out of our fish streams to build tailings ponds or to cool engines. All. The. Time. And they’ve been doing it for years.

Not surprisingly, the AMA met behind closed doors with Commissioner Mack on June 29, 2017, to lobby its case, then wrote to Mack on July 26, 2017, expressing concerns after DNR’s own expert water rights staff concluded Alaska residents have a clear and unambiguous right to reserve waters in streams to protect fish.

As we wrote in a letter to the state on August 22, 2018: “The Chuitna Citizens Coalition does not have the financial wherewithal to generate the political clout of the big oil, gas and mining corporations. All they can do is appeal to your sense of right and wrong.”

Unfortunately, in today’s Alaska political arena, right and wrong don’t stand a chance when big money corporations bully their way to their desired outcomes.

While the Chuitna instream flow decision is an outrageous assault on Alaskans’ rights to protect our public fish and water resources, the state government’s second decision in late August is equally egregious.

On August 30, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game issued 13 fish habitat permits under the Anadromous Fish Act (aka Title 16) to a Canadian mining company for the gigantic Donlin Mine near the banks of the Kuskokwim River, arguably Alaska’s most important subsistence river, vital to tens of thousands of Alaskans who rely on it to get through the winter.

Here are a couple excerpts from the Title 16 permits for Donlin’s Waste Rock Facility and its Tailings Storage Facility:

“Your project as proposed will have adverse effects on anadromous fish or their habitat and will obstruct the free passage of fish. American Creek will be eliminated from approximately 0.25 miles upstream from its mouth to the headwaters.”

“Your project as proposed may have adverse effects on anadromous fish or their habitat and would obstruct the free passage of fish [in Anaconda Creek]. Anadromous fish habitat downstream from the TSF [Tailings Storage Facility] could be altered or eliminated and fish passage to habitats upstream from the TSF would be eliminated once construction of the TSF begins.”

So, there you have it. The state giving away our salmon habitat so an Outside mining company can make a profit. Does it make sense to trade a long term, renewable resource like salmon, for a one-time shot in the economic arm?

Let’s go back to Deantha Crockett with the Alaska Miner’s Association: “I think it jeopardizes our economy when we prioritize one resource over another,” she said. “We should never have to make that decision. We should be able to find a way (to preserve the environment) … if we can’t find a way, we don’t develop.”

Really? No, just kidding!

The Alaska Miners Association knows full-well our old, outdated habitat law provides few protections for our salmon. And that’s how they like it. It’s also why the big mining, oil and gas companies have amassed a $10 million war chest to flood our airwaves with doubt and fear, to confuse us into thinking they actually have the best interest of Alaskans at heart.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Big corporations have one driving legal duty to their shareholders, and that’s to maximize profits. Cutting corners on salmon habitat protections is one important way they keep costs down and profits high.

In the end, these two decisions by our state government tell us what we already knew – the salmon habitat protection system in Alaska is badly broken. And the only way Alaskans are going to cast off the shackles of the corporate influence smothering our debate today is to Vote Yes for Salmon on Ballot Measure 1 on November 6.

Bob Shavelson is Advocacy Director & Inletkeeper for Cook Inletkeeper, an Alaskan group formed in 1995 to protect water quality and salmon habitat. He has worked on fish habitat permitting issues in Alaska for the past 23 years.