Palmer Hearing Pinpoints Divisive Legislation

Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage.
Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

 The Matanuska Valley’s Chickaloon Tribe invited state Department of Natural Resources leaders to speak at an information session in Palmer on Tuesday evening. Three DNR officials who responded fielded questions and heard comments about aspects of an unpopular piece of legislation now before the state legislature.  None of those who spoke were in favor of HB 77.

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Liz Robinson is the executive director of the citizens group, Envision Mat Su

“As we continue to grow, our progress should reflect a state that serves the public, not one that ignores it. As an organization, or mission is to actively engage Mat Su residents and other Alaskans in the conservation, restoration, stewardship and enhancement of our region’s most valuable resources,” Robinson said. “House Bill 77 is at odds with such a mission. This piece of legislation effectively trades the voice of the people in favor of faster permitting for natural resource projects. This bill would limit our ability as citizens to become informed about and appeal natural resource project decisions, and would disproportionately concentrate decision-making power within the hands of the DNR Commissioner.”

Liz Robinson, the executive director of "Envision Mat-Su." Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage.
Liz Robinson, the executive director of “Envision Mat-Su.” Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

About 60 people turned out for the session, which was not an official state public hearing.  Former school teacher and retired principal Stephen O’Brien, who spent 3 decades in Bethel, says the designers of the state’s constitution were careful to include Alaskans in the decision making process.

“And Alaska became unique among the fifty states, as an owner state, where the resources of Alaska belonged to the people of Alaska,” O’Brien said. “That’s what really concerns me about this bill. The founding fathers of our statehood saw the wisdom of including individual people with the rights to stand up. Is it worth it to undermine these long-established principals that make us, as Alaskans, the owners of our resources? I think not. “

 DNR’s Wynn Menafee , a deputy director of DNR’s division of mining, land and water, helped explain that the state wants the bill to streamline the process by which the public is involved in decision making on resource development projects. But he said he was hearing otherwise from the people who spoke out at the meeting.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with HB 77 that was expressed tonight,” Menafee said. “And I think it ranged from issues with the general permits, appeals, water, but it also just basically, in general concept, there was a lot of consideration that they thought the bill was over-riding the public process, and public participation. “

Menafee  says it’s up to the legislature to make the call on whether or not the bill fufills constitutional mandates.

But the Chickaloon Tribe’s health director, Lisa Wade, said the bill is actually helping to unite people

“Pretty much, people are really concerned with this bill. And one thing that you can say about it is, is it is uniting us. It’s uniting Alaskans. It’s bringing us together and calling us to speak out to protect our rights and our future rights from top-down government legislation. You may not streamline and modernize your work load at the expense of the safety of our families and our natural resources. ”

 Menafee said that DNR is currently considering making changes to the bill, but he was not at liberty to discuss what those changes might be.