Since the Legislature gaveled out this spring, state officials have been trying to build support for a controversial land management bill that couldn’t get enough votes in the final days of session. Public meetings were supposed to be part of their outreach effort. But, the Department of Natural Resources has called those meetings off.
In October, Ed Fogels took to the opinion pages of the Anchorage Daily News. As a deputy commissioner at the Department of Natural Resources, he had problems with the paper’s coverage of his agency. He wrote that DNR was doing a better job of managing the state’s waters than they were getting credit for, and that a lot of the department’s issues could be solved by a bill already under consideration by the legislature. Fogels also committed to public meetings because he felt that both the bill and DNR’s process were misunderstood.
“I really thought we would be still on track to do something like that, and then as we started really kind of trying to put it together, we realized it’s just not going to be very workable,” says Fogels. “So, I have to eat crow on that.”
Fogels says that with the holidays coming up and the legislative session just two months away, his staff wouldn’t be able to pull off meetings around the state. Instead, DNR will be meeting with stakeholder groups and fielding individual calls. Fogels says that requires less staff effort and requires less time for notice. They’ve already given 15 presentations on the matter.
“Any of us will talk to anybody at any time. So, if someone has questions on the bill, they should e-mail us or give us a call,” says Fogels. “We’ll call them back on our nickel.”
House Bill 77 is long and sweeping. It’s one of Gov. Sean Parnell’s priorities, and the goal is to streamline the permitting process. Fogels says DNR has been dealing with a backlog of paperwork because people will use the existing statutes to block projects.
“We get a lot of frivolous challenges to our decisions that really we’re trying to make it so that people have to kind of justify a little but more about why they would actually be harmed by a DNR decision, rather than just simply not liking it, sitting in an arm chair in some other part of the world just throwing monkey wrenches at our decisions,” says Fogels. “I don’t think that’s good public policy or right.”
HB 77 has provisions that limit who can appeal DNR’s decisions, and it only allows public entities to apply for water reservations. (For those not immersed in environmental politics, a water reservation guarantees a certain level of flow for a given stream or river, and the objective is usually to conserve fish habitat.) That means that individuals, non-profits, and even tribal groups would no longer be able to ask for that protection from the state. The bill also gives the commissioner power to issue general permits — which don’t need public notice — to projects, so long as the project is unlikely to cause “significant and irreparable harm” to the land.
Because so much of HB 77 deals with the public process, those meetings have taken on a symbolic importance to people with concerns about the legislation. Rick Halford is one of those people. Halford is a Republican who served in the Alaska Legislature for two decades, and he’s been a vocal opponent of Pebble Mine since retiring from public life. He doesn’t like HB 77 as it’s written, and he thinks the state should be coming to affected communities to explain why it’s needed.
“It’s kind of ironic that one of their reasons for the bill in the first place was to reduce public involvement in the process, because they thought it was too much,” says Halford. “So now they’re not having hearings to allow the public more access to the process of changing the process.”
Halford thinks that if DNR had held meetings on their permitting strategy, they would have gotten a big turnout in effected communities.
“I think they definitely would have in Western Alaska, and I think they would have in the Kenai Peninsula,” says Halford. “And they would attend from both sides.”
A number of non-profit groups and trade associations had also hoped for public meetings. United Fishermen of Alaska was one of them.
“It was important to us that the governor’s office and DNR did an expanded job of reaching out to Alaskans,” says UFA Executive Director Julianne Curry.
UFA hasn’t taken a formal position on HB 77. They sent a letter of concern about it last session, because they had questions about how the legislation would affect fish habitat and because they thought the bill was moving too fast.
Since the session ended, they’ve been in touch with DNR about the bill, and Curry says that DNR has been good about answering questions. She thinks her group should be able to make a decision on HB 77 without the public meetings, but that it might actually be to DNR’s benefit to get out there and engage with the public.
“You know the process that they’re working on right now is not necessarily the end of the world,” says Curry. “I think for transparency, it may be a better idea to hold a few public hearings.”
Because HB 77 has already passed in the House and gone through the committee process in the Senate, it’s unclear if there will be opportunities for public testimony on the bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January.