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The Concerned: Opponents of Coastal Management shouldn't worry

Scott Woodham
Aaron Jansen illustration

TO: Opponents of Alaska Coastal Management
CC: The Alaska Sea Party
Subject: No worries

Dear No on 2,

As we're sure you're aware, there's an initiative on the upcoming ballot to restore Alaska's lapsed Coastal Management Program. The program, pending federal certification, allows localities to have a seat at the table as decisions are made about projects slated for federal land or waters. Since local authorities in essentially all coastal areas have signed on in support of reinstatement, and many powerful business interests have signed on in opposition, the whole thing is shaping up to be a knock-down, drag-out campaign.

As many opponents of the initiative argue, Ballot Measure 2 would restore a layer of red tape that hampers development and reinstates a framework for local groups to act independently and squash or meddle with projects already governed by existing law. Of course, those in favor of the measure argue that the program doesn't allow localities to take power over a project from the state or federal government and that local concerns are too easy for decision makers, particularly Feds thousands of miles away from Alaska, to overlook, misunderstand or ignore.

Remember during the Bush administration when the federal government proposed to sell offshore oil leases in and around Bristol Bay? Hoo boy, was that some quality entertainment. Even though the latest federal offshore draft plan keeps those lease blocks off the table, slight changes in the composition of the federal government could bring them, and all that controversy, right back from the brink. And with development on the rise in other federal areas of Alaska, like the Arctic offshore region, the stakes for local people seem only to be rising.

Even though the rural flight phenomenon is continuing, local Alaskans are still pretty thick in far-flung Alaska near potential federal development sites. It seems to us The Concerned they'd be extra mad if the Feds decided to allow industry nearby and their voices weren't given any more weight in the comment process than a boilerplate letter forwarded from someone on an environmental or industry group email list. And the Bristol Bay lease blocks are just one of the conflicts between resources and stakeholders that have played out across the state for decades. There are plenty of others.

Come to think of it, development across Alaska's coastline would go much more smoothly if everyone lived on the Railbelt and fish only existed in our memories -- after all, no locals, no fish, no worries. Since that hasn't happened yet, simply making sure local concerns don't complicate any plans seems like the next best thing. That seemed to have taken place just a little bit in 2003 and 2005, when changes were made that many local governments argue made the program all but useless. That disagreement no doubt contributed to the breakdown that resulted recently in the program's end.

But we're not writing to hash out the back and forth or relive ancient history. No, no. We The Concerned are writing to let you know that even if the ballot initiative to reinstate Coastal Management does pass, it won't be a disaster for your side.

We're not sure you know it, but state government has a long history of ignoring, altering, overturning, sitting on, moving the goalposts on, or outright defunding things approved by a vote of citizens in a referendum or initiative. All manner of things! Among them are marijuana prohibition, moving the state capitol, aerial hunting bans, politicians' financial disclosures, cruise ship taxes, the nuclear arms race, and even reclaiming certain federal lands for the state.

One of the most recent, high profile examples of a statewide initiative becoming an ugly stepchild was the 2002 vote to create the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority (ANGDA), a state agency tasked primarily with building and operating a natural gas pipeline between the North Slope and tidewater. The people approved it by a large margin, nearly 2-1. But nothing much got off the ground. In fact, gasline plans backed by the state only multiplied since that measure passed. And now, ANGDA might as well not even exist. Its funding has been zeroed out for two years now, its long-time chief stepped down in 2011, and last session, there was even a bill that would have tucked the authority like a vestigial tail into the lawmaker-created version of itself, the Alaska Gasline Development Corp.

But we don't want to give the idea that a voter initiative is super easy to squash after it's approved. Sometimes, a ballot measure's popularity is very compelling. The 1980 initiative that would have axed the state's personal income tax, for instance. Or the one that established English as the only language for state government. Or the one that outlawed same-sex unions. Even though history would be on your side should Coastal Management reinstatement pass, killing it won't be a slam-dunk.

Luckily for you, the state is trying out a new way to conduct the initiative process this year. There was a law passed in 2010 that requires statewide, pre-election public hearings for initiatives. The Coastal Management item has the distinction of being the first ballot initiative subject to the new requirement.

The materials set to be presented at the hearings is already in dispute, with backers of the initiative taking issue with plans to present an unusually high estimate of the program's initial cost to voters. The lieutenant governor reportedly plans to tell people that until the federal government certifies the program that voters approve, it will cost the state $5.4 million a year. That figure comes from the governor's Office of Management and Budget, but another accounting of the first year cost provided by the Commerce commissioner to a lawmaker sets the number at $2.9 million.

See? Just like moving the capitol; it'll be fine.

Hang loose,

The Concerned