Citizen’s initiative would update Alaska’s salmon habitat laws

By Ralph Andersen, Robert Heyano and Norm Van Vactor
For the Cordova Times

This fall, Bristol Bay residents need to make some important decisions. Now that freezers are full, we are ready to turn our attention to the November general election. The ballot this year includes a citizen’s initiative to update our salmon habitat laws. It is Ballot Measure 1 also known as the “Stand for Salmon” initiative.

In Bristol Bay, salmon are vital to our economy and our way of life. Protecting them is up to us. That’s why our organizations have all passed resolutions in support of Ballot Measure 1.

Alaska’s current fish habitat laws are older than the state itself. You read that right: The laws and process for fish habitat permitting are carryovers from the territorial days. Just think about that. When these laws were written, President Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, Alaska had a population of about 220,000 and Alaska’s fisheries were being managed for maximum plunder rather than escapement. The current rules are from a different time and they need to be updated. Ballot Measure 1 is a sensible update that would provide a stronger and more transparent science-based permitting system. This is one tool to protect the salmon resource we all rely on.

There is a lot of conversation in the region about this initiative. We wanted to take this opportunity to provide the same information to you that helped our boards decide. That way you can make your own choice.

First, Ballot Measure 1 does not change the types of activities that require permits – nothing in Ballot Measure 1 changes that. What the initiative does is create a fair, science-based permitting system. It creates two tracks to process permits. Projects that pose little threat to fish habitat get a minor permit and are processed quickly but projects that have the potential damage Alaska’s salmon fisheries like the Pebble mine, are put on the major permit track and receive more scrutiny. Vital infrastructure like roads, schools, airports and more will still be built in our communities; they simply will be built with commonsense precautions for the wild salmon we depend on.

The initiative would also make some other necessary updates to existing laws. Ballot Measure 1 creates habitat protection standards to define what it really means to properly protect our fish and wildlife. It also improves the bonding requirements for major projects, so that the big companies who want to build large projects are responsible for the financial cost of cleanup. And for the first time ever, Alaskans will be informed when permits are issued. For major permits, Alaskans will have the opportunity to weigh in on large development projects that could harm our salmon. These updates to the law establish a standard of care for fish habitat that holds large developers accountable if a project is proposed in our state’s rich salmon areas.

Finally, here in Bristol Bay, we know that nearly every stream has fish in it. There are 29 species of fish in our region. They all depend on pristine habitat. Salmon, pike, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic char and so many more – they all depend on streams throughout our region for life. And we depend on them. But the state currently recognizes only some of the streams that support our fish as needing protection, Ballot Measure 1 would update the law to acknowledge the true extent of the anadromous streams in our region, a key step in protecting them.

The people of Bristol Bay have been stewards of our resources since time immemorial, and in turn, our resources have sustained us throughout the ages. Now, we’re being asked to consider updated protections for our timeless fisheries. Everyone has the right to voice their opinion by casting a vote on Nov. 6. Please, make your voice heard.

Ralph Andersen is the president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Association, Robert Heyano is the president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Norm Van Vactor is the CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.