Court Battle Ensues Over Stand for Salmon Initiative

A proposed ballot initiative aimed at updating and strengthening regulations to protect fish habitat is now in the hands of the Alaska Supreme Court.

While the booklets for gathering the 32,000 signatures necessary to put the initiative on Alaska’s statewide 2018 ballot are out, the state of Alaska on Oct. 20 filed an appeal in the Alaska Supreme Court over Stand for Salmon v. Mallott, a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the proposed ballot initiative.

“The question of whether a proposed ballot initiative makes an appropriation is an important constitutional question that should be answered by the Alaska Supreme Court,” said Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth.

The state takes no position on whether the initiative is good policy, she said. “This is about the superior court’s legal conclusion and our duty to defend the Alaska Constitution, and we believe the superior court got it wrong,” she said.

The appeal came on the heels of a decision by Alaska Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner, who ruled in mid-October that the ballot measure to update the state’s 60-year-old law governing development in salmon habitat should move forward. Rindner than directed Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott to produce petition booklets for circulation.

That decision came after Stand for Salmon proponents sued in response to a September decision by Mallott, who acted on a recommendation of the state’s Department of Law that the initiative was unconstitutional, and declined to certify the initiative.

Once the state’s appeal was filed, the supreme court began the process of issuing a briefing schedule on when the opening brief from the state was due, initiative sponsors would respond to it, and the state would respond to the initiative sponsors’ brief, explained Libby Bakalar, an assistant attorney general for the state. There is usually a 30-day period between each briefing cycle, but the court usually moves more quickly in cases involving an election, Bakalar said.

“The Superior Court correctly determined that the initiative is not an appropriation,” said Valerie Brown, legal director for Trustees for Alaska, commenting after the Alaska Superior Court handed down its ruling reversing the state’s initial decision on the initiative. Brown argued the case for the plaintiff, Stand for Salmon, a diverse group of Alaska-based individuals, businesses and organizations concerned about protecting fish habitat.

“Some industry interests pressured the state to appeal because they benefit from a weak permitting system with no public input,” Brown said. “The current system treats every activity in salmon streams the same, regardless of potential harm. But, as the Superior Court rightly found, Alaskans have the right to have their voice heard through the initiative process and weigh in on how the state protects our salmon habitat.”

“We need to have clear rules for projects proposed in sensitive salmon habitat to ensure they’re being done responsibly – as well as provide more certainty in the permitting process for the industry proposing the project,” said Mike Wood, initiative sponsor and commercial set netter in Upper Cook Inlet.