Anti-salmon, anti-democracy bill still in play

The Senate Resources Committee is holding hearings this week on House Bill 77.  HB 77 is Gov. Sean Parnell’s grab bag of anti-salmon, anti-democracy rollbacks that grants new super powers to our state government while stripping away our rights as Alaskans to protect our fish and game resources. Despite claims that recent amendments “fix the bill,”  little has improved.  

Every Alaskan who cares about salmon and democracy should speak out on HB 77.

 I grew up on the same Cook Inlet shores as my ancestors. I recall as a kid thinking about the incredible forces at play here — the enormous tides exposing the vast flats, the ices floes ripping out of the Ninilchik River at break-up, and, of course, the magnificent volcanoes.  

Throughout it all — the coldest winters, the harshest storms and the biggest eruptions — the salmon returned in the spring. Some years more than others.  In the spring I, too, returned to Cook Inlet and the salmon.  

During my formative years, I traveled to the Pacific Northwest and beyond. I soon learned the salmon’s resilience had boundaries, and those boundaries were largely defined by human ignorance. In California — like the Pacific Northwest, New England and Europe — the wild salmon were mostly gone.

I spoke to fisherman, and I listened to their stories.   Time and again, two things conspired to bring about the collapse of wild fish: few or no substantive protections around salmon habitat and a lack of respect for the people who depend on the fish.

When I built my permanent home on the bluffs over Kalifonski Beach 25 years ago, I saw the same pattern continue, and it’s been unfolding in slow motion, until recently.  

Last year, Dan Sullivan, commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources at the time, helped ram HB 77 through the Alaska State House. There was no serious debate, no serious questions answered, no background information on highly technical legal and policy issues. The skids were clearly greased.

It wasn’t until the waning days of the legislative session when outraged Alaskans finally learned what the bill really did and rose up. Sens. Peter Micciche of Soldotna, Click Bishop of Fairbanks  and Lesil McGuire of Anchorage and a few others rightly stood up, asked some important questions and HB 77 stalled in the Senate.

Over the summer, more than 40 Native tribes from around the state passed resolutions opposing HB 77, and hundreds and hundreds of Alaskans packed town hall meetings in opposition.

This week, the Parnell administration will try yet again to push through House Bill 77. We’ve been told it’s been fixed, but the administration’s amendments, unveiled Monday, look like lipstick on a pig.

General permitting authority is still expanded with terms like “likely significant or irrepareable harm” remaining undefined and to be decided totally at the discretion of the commissioner. You still have to prove “substantial adverse” impacts in order to appeal or weigh in on DNR’s permitting decisions. That phrase is defined in one section of HB 77 as “physical or financial detriment” — way too high of a bar for an Alaskan to meet to have a voice in the process.

Last but not least, the water reservation section added person or tribe back in, leaves local governments out and has been gutted in terms of process so that DNR will have the discretion to adjudicate them if and whenever they please.  

Now, Alaskans are busy digesting and looking to make sense of the amendments introduced. Meanwhile Senate President Charlie Huggins is already telling the media HB 77 is a done deal and the bill will “be ready to be passed here in the next couple of weeks.”  

Once again, the Parnell administration is working behind closed doors, without public input and giving Alaskans just a few days to respond to whatever secretive changes they’ve put in the bill.  

No two Alaskans will ever agree on everything. But we have a right to expect our political leaders — including Gov. Parnell — to show the respect and decency to have an open, deliberate and honest debate about important issues affecting our fisheries, our culture and our livelihoods. 

Let’s not be hasty with HB 77. Our salmon and our democracy deserve better.

Benjamin Jackinsky is an Alaska Native, small business owner and commercial fisherman who lives and fishes in Kasilof. He also is president of Cook Inletkeeper, a Homer-based group dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed.