Stand for Salmon Initiative Imposes Excessive Burden on Alaskans

By Aaron Schutt and Joey Merrick

As Alaskans, we value our unique quality of life. We know Alaska is a special place, and have a passion to preserve and protect our home for future generations. But sometimes unrestrained passions can cloud our vision of what makes sense and what is right. And, unfortunately, organizers of a fish habitat initiative poised to go before Alaska's voters later this year have let their passion overwhelm basic common sense and sound decision-making. The new proposed law they have drafted to protect salmon habitat would instead pose a dangerous risk to Alaska's economy, jobs, communities and the Alaska way of life.

The language in their new law would mandate, unless proven otherwise, that nearly all waters in the state would be considered habitat for the spawning, rearing, or migration of any fish that spends a portion of its life in both fresh and salt water such as Pacific trout and salmon, Arctic char, Dolly Varden, sheefish and many other species. While that may sound well-intended, the inclusion of all these waters — many non-fish bearing — creates serious unintended consequences for Alaskans, consequences that the proponents apparently never considered.

So, how would their measure affect daily Alaska life?

Let's say you own a cabin on a lake, and decide to build a new dock. Under the terms of this ballot measure, the cabin owner would be tasked with hiring a consultant to determine and ultimately prove to regulators that no migrating fish live in the lake before getting a state permit to build that dock. This, in and of itself, is an onerous, expensive and time-consuming task. It does not matter if the lake has never had migratory fish, but if it has the potential to host certain fish, then that lake is given protected habitat status until the state determines otherwise. Worse still, let's say the cabin owner replaces an existing dock without a permit. The ballot measure calls for criminal penalties for such a violation, meaning potential jail time or criminal fines imposed by a judge.

This is what happens when special interests write new laws in private and without public review. There is no transparency, there is no questioning the "what ifs." While targeting everyday Alaskans may not have been the intent of the Outsiders who have mostly funded this initiative, their language and the penalties that come with it are clear. The vague, overly broad wording of their proposed initiative opens the door for differing legal interpretation, lawsuits and extended court fights. Policy will be decided by lawyers and judges, which is the wrong way to go about protecting and preserving the things we cherish about Alaska.

For everyday Alaskans, both urban and rural, this ballot measure is a nightmare. Just this fall, the State's Department of Transportation told a rural community that the road they wanted to build would likely be impossible under the terms of the ballot measure, because it would require using gravel collected from the river. For rural residents still waiting for running water and flush toilets, this initiative ensures those improvements will likely never happen. This is not an exaggeration or an overstatement.

In addition to challenging our way of life, it is also threatening how Alaskans make a living and provide for their families. We have lost thousands of jobs since the recession began a few years ago. Our economy is just now starting to turn the corner. So why would we implement a new law that stifles economic development, like the construction of roads, bridges and the exciting natural gas pipeline project that is rapidly gaining momentum? These projects represent thousands of good, family-sustaining jobs, all of which are jeopardized under the terms of this initiative.

We, too, are passionate about Alaska, and are optimistic for our shared future. Both of us have signed on to the Stand for Alaska campaign as co-chairs because passage of this ballot measure poses such a grave risk to our economy, our rural areas, and our quality of life in this state. As Alaskans, we stand for salmon, but we also stand for everything Alaskans hold dear. We encourage Alaskans to join us as we work to fight this misguided, and ultimately, un-Alaskan initiative.

Aaron Schutt is president and chief executive officer of Doyon, Limited, a Fairbanks-based Alaska Native corporation. Joey Merrick is Business Manager for Laborers' Local 341 and serves on the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board of directors. Schutt and Merrick both serve as co-chairs to Stand For Alaska. Learn more at www.standforAK.com.

Lizzie Rosen