By DOUG VINCENT-LANG
There is a call for the implementation of a new fisheries habitat permitting system for Alaska. The proponents of this call are claiming that if you “Stand for Salmon” you will vote for the “Yes for Salmon” proposition in this fall’s election.
But does Alaska need a new permitting system to protect our salmon runs?
Alaska’s fisheries are recognized as some of the best managed in the world, largely because of the dynamic and adaptive fisheries management program we have in place. Unlike other states, the Alaska Constitution includes a sustained yield mandate. This mandate results in a framework of precautionary policies, statutes, management plans, and practices that ensure for the sustainability of our salmon runs.
We also have in place a habitat permitting program that is conducted by the Alaska Departments of Fish and Game, Natural Resources, and Environmental Conservation. The professionals in these departments review resource development applications and work with the applicants to issue permits that, based on their collective experience and knowledge, conserve critical habitats. They also have the authority to deny permits if the requested activity cannot be done in a responsible manner.
This allows resource development and its economic benefits to occur in a manner that conserves critical fish and wildlife habitats and the benefits they provide. Between this, and the reality that over two-thirds of Alaska is in some form of protected status (e.g., in national or state parks, preserves, or refuges), we have a successful program in place to conserve our freshwater fisheries habitats to the extent that few can claim that freshwater habitat is a limiting factor to the productivity of Alaska’s fisheries.
Under this existing program Alaska has successfully developed our state’s oil and gas resources (e.g., the North Slope and Cook Inlet), mineral resources (Red Dog and Fort Knox mines) and timber resources, providing their associated economic benefits, including our state’s permanent fund and its annual dividend. We have done this while conserving potentially affected habitats associated with these developments.
Our state’s urban areas, such as Anchorage and the Mat-Su, have been developed while conserving salmon habitat and runs. As an example, Ship Creek and Campbell Creek in Anchorage both support popular salmon fisheries in the midst of a highly developed urban area.
In sum, our current permitting program has allowed our state to develop and provide for a sustained economy that includes both resource development and conservation of fish and wildlife habitats.
So is a new permitting system needed to conserve fisheries habitat? In my opinion, the answer is no. Based on my experience, the current permitting system is dynamic and adaptive enough to conserve habitat while allowing for resource development and the benefits it provides. As an example of the dynamic nature of the current system, the state initially issued permits that allowed culverts to be installed that restricted fish passage. But once this was recognized, the current permitting system was dynamic enough to require that new permits for both existing and new culverts included stipulations that insured for fish passage.
While some salmon runs across our state are depressed, most professionals agree that this is not because of freshwater habitat loss, rather the result of variable marine conditions. Our state’s chinook and sockeye salmon returns appear to be largely impacted by changing ocean conditions and/or potential food limitation associated with hatchery releases more than any other factor. A new, more stipulative permitting system will not solve such marine issues.
I am also concerned about the impact the initiative may have on both existing and needed expanded hunting and fishing access across our state. Hunting and fishing are important to Alaskans and our way of life. One of the biggest limiting factors as population grows is access to our fish and game resources. We need to not inhibit or restrict access, rather improve and expand it to ensure Alaskans can feed their families and preserve our hunting and fishing heritages.
While I agree that it is appropriate for citizens of our state to prioritize beneficial uses through a reasonable and objective process, the Stand For Salmon proposition does not create a reasonable process. Instead it creates a labyrinth that, if implemented as designed, may result in a backlash that could jeopardize, not buttress, the protection of fish habitat in Alaska.
If adopted as written, it may turn public support for reasonable fish habitat protection into public opinion that the process is a perfect example of governmental overreach. Reasonable changes can be made to improve the existing review and permitting structure, but this should be done in an open and transparent process, not one conducted behind closed doors by a chosen few without widespread public input.
Given the success of our existing permitting program, the amount of land across our state in protected status, and the costs associated with the new unproven system I will be voting to keep our exiting permitting system in place. I believe one can “stand for salmon” while voting against the “Yes For Salmon” initiative. The potential costs to our state’s economy, which contribute to our management of fish and game, is simply not justified at this time.
Doug Vincent-Lang was a past Director of Wildlife Conservation and a past supervisor of the special area habitat permitting program in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.