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Will Alaska voters establish a new coastal management program?

Eric Christopher Adams
A boat stranded on Wainwright, Alaska's Chukchi Sea shoreline. Ben Anderson photo

Alaska has given up local input on federal projects off state shores, according to a coalition of lawmakers from coastal boroughs. And absent leadership from the Alaska Legislature, they're determined they have a say on development that's proposed -- or planned.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho and others believe that when the coastal zone management program expired this summer, the state lost its legal authority to have a say in federal ventures -- including mining, timber harvests on federal land and offshore oil development -- proposed along Alaska's 6,640 miles of coastline.

Botelho and others from Southcentral and Southeast Alaska filed paperwork last week with Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who's responsible for state elections, to launch a citizens initiative aimed at establishing a new Alaska Coastal Zone Management Program. Coastal management has proven one of the most acrimonious debates of the Alaska Legislature's current two-year session.

Lawmakers weren't able to extend or renew the program during the regular session. Attempts at addressing coastal management failed during a special session called by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell. As the clock ticked toward the program's expiration on June 30, state senators rallied to call a second special session to keep it alive. But a lack of support among House lawmakers -- and some say from the Parnell administration -- doomed coastal management, leaving Alaska as the nation's only coastal state to lack a voice on federal onshore or offshore plans proposed here.

At issue: who in the state should have final "local" input over developing Alaska's coasts -- locals themselves, who claim to be most knowledgeable of their back yards, or state policymakers? Gov. Parnell favors stronger state authority and sees Alaska's shoreline natural resources as a "state asset," according to a discussion about coastal zones earlier this year. Influential lawmakers in rural Alaska want local authority over any proposed development in their boroughs or on their shores, despite state or federal ambition.

Alaska's borough governments and rural populations tend toward stronger environmental safeguards and regulation. State government wants fewer regulations and more development.

It's these divisions -- coupled with support at the local level for input -- that galvanized Botelho, a former state attorney general, to take the lead on drafting a citizens initiative, he said during an interview after Monday's press conference.

"We believe Alaskans need a voice in managing their coastlines. I watched with interest the efforts within the Legislature to find a solution" during the last regular and special sessions. "Comments made during the legislative sessions made it appear highly unlikely" that lawmakers would find consensus on this program, which impacts the "management and enhancement of the overall quality of coastal environments for this and succeeding generations," Botelho said.

"Coastal communities value the program and their voice on regulating their coastal environment," he added. "How else does one leverage broad public sentiment to move the Legislature" to action, than by voter initiative?

Supporters of the initiative say it has bipartisan support. Other cosponsors of the initiative include Mako Haggerty, an assemblyman for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Jerome Selby. A spokesperson for the Alaska Municipal League, which hosted Monday's press conference, said his organization supported coastal zone management. Botelho said that 200 signatures had been gathered to begin the initiative process with the Alaska Division of Elections.

Should the group garner enough support -- and with the help of volunteers who would petition Alaskans to sign on -- the initiative could be among issues facing voters in November 2012.

A look at the proposed initiative

The proposed initiative wasn't crafted to resemble bills that were introduced or debated during the last regular and special legislative sessions, Botelho said. And it does not seek to "reestablish" the old program, a source of contention for local government officials from the oil-rich North Slope to the forested Southeast. They felt their voice on development issues had been co-opted by a change to the law about eight years ago, which consolidated authority at the state level.

Here's what the Alaska Coastal Management Program initiative would create, if the Legislature doesn't act first by creating a law "similar to the initiative":

- A 13-member Coastal Policy Board, appointed by the governor, from a list that includes three names from each region: Northwest, Bering Straits, Southwest, Kodiak-Aleutians, Anchorage and Mat-Su, Kenai Peninsula, Prince William Sound, Southeast and the Panhandle. The board will also include the commissioners of the Departments of Commerce, Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game and Natural Resources. The board will "review and approve regulations" necessary under the U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act.

- A Division of Coastal Management created within the Alaska Department of Commerce.

Supporters of the initiative hope to have 27,000 signatures submitted to the lieutenant governor by Jan. 17 of next year. (In order to be certified, initiative supporters will need to attract signatures from 25,875 Alaskans.) Whether the initiative passes or the legislature acts, it would take at least a year, if not longer, for the federal government to sign off on a new Alaska coastal management program.

The program that expired this summer had a state staff of 33 and a budget of about $4.5 million, more than half of which was funded by the federal government.

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com