This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
The League of Women Voters hosted a forum last week to help inform voters on Alaska Ballot Measure 1.
Kaitlin Vadla and Laura Rhyne from Cook Inletkeeper spoke in support of the Stand for Salmon campaign. Owen Phillips from Stand for Alaska and Linda Hutchings from Stand for the Kenai Peninsula spoke in opposition of Alaska Ballot Measure 1.
In their opening statements, they told the crowd about their connection to Alaska and salmon.
Vadla, who grew up in Clam Gulch, said she continues to live in Alaska because she loves it here. She said she wants development to be done responsibly. “I think this is just a common sense initiative.
“I hunt, fish, spend a lot of time outside,” Vadla said. “I live here because of the incredible quality of life we have here.”
Rhyne said she grew up in Alaska and left for college. She said she left for college and came back even more grateful for the state she calls home.
“If we want to protect the things we love it’s not enough to say we just care about salmon; we have to put some action behind those words, and that’s what I think this initiative is about,” Rhyne said.
Hutchings grew up on her parents homestead in Soldotna. She lived a subsistence lifestyle and commercially fished in the summer.
“We have worked hand in hand with Native communities, governmental departments, industry and our communities to ensure a safe and robust habitat for all of our fish and wildlife,” Hutchings said.
Phillips is a third generation Soldotnan. He said he was initially worried about getting caught up in the divisive campaign.
“I went to study in Georgetown, but I missed home,” Phillips said. “After reading the initiative I realized I could not allow something so poorly written to be enacted into law, so I decided to return home.”
The moderator asked Rhyne what the most compelling reasons to vote for Prop 1 are. Rhyne began by noting that the current law is over 60 years old, and was written when Alaska became a state. She said that nowhere in state statute is “proper protection” defined.
“The interpretation is very open to the current administration, whoever the current commissioner of Alaska Fish and Game is, who your local habitat biologist is…” Rhyne said. “We’ve got guidelines for this, but there’s no statutory definition for proper protection.”
Hutchings responded to Rhyne and said there are many other state and federal regulations that control fish habitat.
“Saying our fish protection comes down to two words is not right,” Hutchings said.
Phillips responded and said there are some good ideas in Alaska Ballot Measure 1, including the major and minor permit system. However, he said he does not believe that anadromous habitat should include seasonal water bodies and other various things that pop up rather than lakes streams, rivers that we know and define as natural habitat. He also said the appeals process allows any interested party to enter into an appeals party on any permit.
“That seems like a big hurdle to get through, especially if it’s someone just doing a project in their backyard,” Phillips said.
Vadla said the update is important for many reasons. She said right now, none of these permits are noticed and there is no comment period for them.
“I think we should at least know what’s going on,” Vadla said.
She also said the initiative adds in a bonding requirement for big projects that have disasters.
“It makes it more likely that a big project will clean up a disaster that they caused, and the burden won’t be on taxpayers,” Vadla said. “We’ve seen that in lots of places in Alaska and outside of Alaska.”
The moderator asked Vadla what she liked and didn’t like about the proposed two-tier system for permitting. She said the new system is just an update of the current law.
“Right now if you’re putting in a dock or if you’re Pebble Mine and trying to put in a mine near Bristol Bay, it’s the same permit,” Vadla said. “We agree some projects need more scrutiny and some need to move quickly in our backyard.”
Rhyne said another major improvement is with transparency regarding major permits.
Hutchings responded and said she looked at the issue by considering the future development of her own properties that contain bodies of water.
“We have the Kenai River, and we have a piece of property there that we have not developed,” Hutchings said. “If we wanted to develop we would go to the Kenai River Center and all the permitting agencies to establish that. I don’t really have a problem with Kenai River, but with Sport Lake I do. Sport Lake is not an anadromous stream. But, there are fish in that lake, because it’s stocked. What are the rulings going to be because it’s a stocked lake?”
Phillips said the idea of a two-tier permitting system sounds reasonable. However, he emphasized that the execution needs to be more detailed.
“The idea that all of these permits are going to receive the same amount of scrutiny is baffling to me,” Phillips said. “There’s no way something going on the Kenai River is going to receive the same amount of microscoping that the Pebble Mine project has.
The moderator asked the panelists where the money behind the campaigns comes from, and how it might be impacting voters.
Rhyne said the Stand for Salmon initiative is a grassroots movement, and that most of the money raised has come from over 1,700 Alaskans.
“We don’t have a lot of money,” Rhyne said. “The ‘no’ campaign has out raised us 10 to one.”
Hutchings said the outside companies supporting the “no” campaign have been supporting Alaska communities for 50 years.
“These are companies that are invested in your community,” Hutchings said.
The moderator asked Phillips which myth about the initiative did he want most to dispel. Phillips said the proposition would affect existing projects if they need a new permit.
“It means if you have a permit, and you need to renew, you’ll have to get it under this document,” Phillips said.
Vadla said very few of these permits don’t require renewal.
“They are issued for a construction project, or a road,” Vadla said. “They don’t expire. So basically, Fish and Game say ‘here’s this permit, go build this thing. You have from here to here to do the building and then just make sure you don’t do it when salmon are spawning.’ That’s basically how most of these Title 16 permits work.”
Rhyne said she wanted to dispel the myth that everything is anadromous fish habitat.
“It’s not saying, you know, an isolated lake in the middle of nowhere that’s not connected to any existing water bodies… that is not going to require you to get a permit,” Rhyne said. “That is not connected to an anadromous water body or to the ocean. If it’s not connected the ocean eventually, it’s not anadromous.”
Voters will cast their votes for Alaska Ballot Measure 1 on Nov. 6.