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Coastal Management: Prop 2 a fight for local control of Alaska's natural resources

Rick Sinnott
flickr / echoforsberg

One hundred years ago Alaska was at a crossroads. It was a ward of the federal government.

Rich and powerful businessmen who lived outside the region were calling the shots economically and politically. Business was good. For the fat cats and their stockholders. But not necessarily for Alaskans.

Ultimately, Alaskans tired of the abuse and wrested control from the wealthy financiers and corporations. When becoming a territory of the United States had little effect, the territory became a state. Only then were Alaskans afforded a real opportunity to direct their own destinies.

Yet, in one sense, I don’t see much difference between the bad old days and now. Alaskans are still fighting rich and powerful corporations based in the Lower 48 states and foreign countries.

Only now the fight is not for statehood, but for local control through coastal management.

The Alaska Syndicate

In 1906 wealthy East Coast financiers, among them J. P. Morgan and the Guggenheim brothers, organized the Alaska Syndicate. The Alaska Syndicate was created to get Kennecott copper to markets. Because the copper ore was far from the coast and Alaska was far from the rest of the world, the syndicate built the state’s first railroad and purchased steamship lines. Because they had a near monopoly on transportation, the syndicate charged exorbitant rates for freight. Within a few years, the Alaska Syndicate controlled much of Alaska’s transportation, copper mines, and salmon fisheries. They intended to keep it that way.

Before Alaska became a territory in 1912 the Alaska Syndicate and the Alaska Packers Association, neither of which was based in Alaska or directed by Alaskans, controlled most of the region’s resource development. They brought in cheap immigrant labor from Seattle and San Francisco. Hiring Alaskans wasn’t important to them. Neither was taking care of the people they brought into Alaska. The Alaska Syndicate thought nothing of leaving thousands of laborers stranded in Katalla, looking for work, after deciding to switch a railroad terminus to Cordova.

With fish traps operating almost nonstop, Alaska’s salmon stocks were depleted. A federal mediator in the mid-1930s concluded that the Alaska Packers Association was “robbing the fishermen blind.” Alaskans were not amused.

The Alaska Syndicate and Alaska Packers Association spent lots of money and peddled lots of influence to keep home rule out of Alaska. However, because Alaskans wanted to control their own destiny, Alaska became a territory of the United States in 1912. Many of the monopolistic practices didn’t stop until the territory became a state in 1959. The desire for some local control over resource development was the primary impetus for statehood.

Original Alaska Coastal Management Program

I worked in the governor’s office under Governor Jay Hammond in the late 1970s when Alaska was creating its first coastal management program. We never considered the program an imposition on Alaskans. To the contrary, the program was intended to keep sole control of Alaska coastal issues from the federal government. As envisioned, and ultimately implemented, the program gave local people a measure of control over development and conservation issues in their communities and regions.

Like Hammond’s plan to distribute some of the state’s oil and gas wealth to residents through the Permanent Fund, coastal management was a way to share decision-making with each Alaskan, even those in unincorporated areas where there was no local government.

Fast forward a couple of decades and along came Governor Frank Murkowski. Murkowski was no fan of local input. As a former banker and U.S. senator, he exuded the very essence of a fat cat. Murkowski seriously injured the state’s coastal management program by consolidating state permitters, including fisheries biologists, formerly with the Department of Fish and Game, in the Department of Natural Resources, one of the state’s most rabidly pro-development agencies.

Murkowski put a sunset clause on the program, allowing it to expire in 2011 unless reauthorized by the Legislature.

Governor Sean Parnell is also no supporter of local input. Parnell and the Alaska Legislature let Alaska’s coastal zone program lapse. Alaska is now the only coastal state without an authorized coastal management program. Think of that. If coastal management is such a bad idea, if it’s so bad for business and development, why do Texans support it?

Ballot initiative

Alaskans are trying to bring the coastal management program back. An initiative that would reconstitute the program is on the August 28 primary ballot. Unfortunately, the initiative, which seeks to recreate a program that was in effect for over 30 years, is long and detailed.

That has played into the hands of opponents. They love to harp on the fact that the initiative is several pages long, that it’s the “wordiest” ballot measure in Alaska’s history. From the outset, the program’s opponents have characterized coastal management as an unchecked, unsupervised exercise in bureaucracy. That’s the message you hear over and over as the election approaches because opponents have lots more money to spend than proponents of the measure.

Opponents have contributed nearly 10 times the funding for political advertisements as supporters.

Not surprisingly, Outside interests have contributed nearly three-fourths of the opposition’s funding.

Resurrecting the Alaska Syndicate

Some of the biggest contributors opposed to the initiative include the Alaska Miners Association, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corporation, ConocoPhillips, BP, Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Fairbanks Gold Mining, Inc., Donlin Gold, Hecla Greens Creek Mining Company, Pebble Partnership, and the Resource Development Council. Don’t let the names fool you. Most of the big-spending opponents aren’t Alaskan organizations. For example, 14 of the 15 member companies of the “Alaska” Oil and Gas Association are based outside of Alaska.

Notice any pattern here? It’s the Alaska Syndicate reincarnated.

Big resource extraction companies don’t want to consider the opinions or needs of local Alaskans. They’re willing to pay lobbyists and attorneys to get what they want from politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Similarly, they seem to have no qualms about misleading Alaskan voters about the coastal management initiative.

Pros and cons

The original coastal management program was in effect for over 30 years. What does the ballot measure propose that’s new? Nothing much.

This didn’t keep Rachael Petro, the president/CEO of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, from claiming the initiative will create a new bureaucracy.

She says the measure “could impose a new set of rules and standards that give unprecedented and un-checked powers to an entirely new body of unelected Alaskans unaccountable to the voters.”

She also claims the initiative may “create a crippling web of bureaucracy and conflicting rules that have not been subject to public scrutiny and serious review.”

Did she just step off the boat? I worked with the Alaska Coastal Management Program for years and I don’t see much difference between the ballot initiative and the coastal management program that was in effect for over three decades. Anyone, like Petro, who resorts to hyperbole to make their point is exaggerating because it’s the only way they believe they can win the argument.

What is this new bogeyman, I mean bureaucracy, that Petro and other opponents fear? The initiative would reconstitute the Alaska Coastal Policy Board. According to Judy Brady, a former executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and former chairperson of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, “The board reports to no one.”

Actually, because the board is appointed by the governor, it would report to the governor, like all governor-appointed boards. The coastal policy board is not a new agency unless you can’t recollect the past 35 years or so. It’s a board that is necessary to ensure that local coastal district regulations conform to the state standards that are listed in the initiative.

The initiative would also recreate an agency, the Division of Coastal Management, to coordinate state and local input. The coordinating agency would be in the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Previously, the coordinating agency was called the Division of Governmental Coordination, and it was housed in the governor’s office. Does the initiative create a new government agency? No, it recreates an agency whose role lapsed when the state’s coastal management program was allowed to die.

In most cases, the coordinated review provided by the previous coastal management program facilitated permitting decisions. In the relatively few instances where development was delayed or denied, the initial plans submitted were generally half-baked. In most cases, with a few adjustments, permits were approved. You want to see slow decisions? Let the federal government run the show, like they will if the initiative is defeated.

Some opponents claim the initiative has no clear rules. Petro claimed it would create a new set of rules. To the contrary, the initiative would reinstate the coastal districts, district boundaries, and approved local coastal management plans in effect as of June 30, 2011. What’s so scary about that? Developers were subject to those same policies for over 30 years.

Unelected, unaccountable, unchecked

Coastal management would not be a rogue, unsupervised program. Expenditures, like before, are subject to legislative appropriation. New regulations, like before, are subject to the requirements of the Alaska Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public notice, public hearings, and other checks and balances just like new regulations promulgated by the Alaska Board of Fisheries and other state regulatory boards.

Opponents claim the initiative will cause serious economic harm. But by most measures, Alaska was better off between 1977 and 2011, when the coastal management program was operating, than we are now.

The claims by pro-development chatterbots like Petro, Brady, and others are specious. They want to reserve all the coastal management decisions for themselves. But they aren’t government officials, you say? If you think chambers of commerce, mining corporations, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, and others who want to defeat the initiative don’t influence Alaska’s politicians and politically appointed bureaucrats, you just stepped off the boat. The owners and leaders of those organizations are the truly unelected, unaccountable, and unchecked decision-makers in Alaska.

Rooting for the initiative to fail?

What’s important to Alaskans? Development, yes. But also some measure of conservation. After all, most of us fish, hunt, drink water, breath air.

I’m in favor of ballot measure 2, and I’ll certainly vote for it. But I’m kind of rooting for it to fail.

Because I don’t think the federal government is stuffed as deeply into the pockets of the mining, oil and gas, and timber industries as the Parnell administration, which is headed by a former oil and gas industry lobbyist. I’d like to see the federal government put the squeeze on the Outside corporations and pro-business-at-any-cost organizations who are spending close to $1.5 million to defeat this ballot initiative despite what local Alaskans want.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.