The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna were standing room only Monday night. State Senator Peter Micciche held a public meeting about House Bill 77, the controversial piece of legislation that aims to streamline permitting for the Department of Natural Resources. Not one member of the public testified in favor of the bill.
Testimony went on for more than two hours. Everyone who stepped up to the mic was opposed to the bill. A level of agreement rarely seen in this room. Two major issues surfaced as sticking points. One was raising the legal standard for challenging a Department of Natural Resources ruling.
“It’s controversial,” said Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels. “We’re looking at these appeals, and quite frankly a lot of them really don’t have a lot of merit. People just don’t like the decision, the may not even live in Alaska. We’re trying to make it so that people have a good reason to appeal a decision.”
Fogels was joined on the panel with Senator Micciche and Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. He says the current qualification for challenging a decision is too broad. Under HB 77, that would change.
“This makes it so you have to write down why the decision will hurt you, will harm you. I know a lot of people out there don’t fundamentally agree that we should be raising that bar, but it’s a way for us to reduce the administrative burden on appeals that don’t have merit.”
The decisions the panel referred to were decisions about water reservation permits, called in-stream flow reservations. What has people worried is losing their ability to save water for fish, where it might potentially be used for something else, like a mining project.
Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell tried to ease the concern that individuals will lose their standing to apply for or challenge those permits and that government agencies would instead represent those interests.
“Fish and Game has always been very receptive to partnering with people who are interested in securing water reservations to protect fish habitat. We would still be committed to working with interested groups and ensuring that groups that share our interest in in-stream flow reservations still have every opportunity to partner with us in obtaining these reservations.”
Campbell said the department has already taken 35 applications under its wing that would be disregarded should HB 77 pass.
But that wasn’t the kind of reassurance the public was after.
Dr. David Wartinbee, a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, told the panel HB 77 is about trust. But he’s not buying the administrative argument that HB 77 will somehow lessen the workload for reviewing permits, or that there’s even a problem at all.
“Show me that abuse. I don’t believe. I don’t believe that it’s going to happen,” Wartinbee said. Nor was he convinced that a backlog of permits up for review was big enough to justify passage of HB 77.
“I have a problem with that when you tell me at the beginning of the meeting that you have resolved more than 70 percent of the backlog. It seems to me that internal efficiencies have solved the problem that this entire bill is all about. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Marilyn Cornell of Soldotna put it even more plainly.
“I’m an Alaskan, from the tip of my hair to the bottom of my toes. And no one should be able to tell me that I don’t have a right to put input into anything the state government is going to decide.”
Senator Micciche said he had a lot to take back to Juneau after the meeting. HB 77 has already passed the house. It currently sits with the Senate Rules Committee, which will take up the issue again in January.