OPINION: Governor Parnell: Do the Right Thing for Our Salmon Habitat

By Rob Ernst
The administration of Alaska Governor Sean Parnell ruled in
late July that a wild salmon stream in Cook Inlet was “suitable” for
large-scale coal strip mining.
You read that right. In response to a petition from local
Alaskans looking to protect salmon habitat from the proposed Chuitna coal strip
mine, the Parnell Administration said “no.” This wasn’t an attempt to stop the
coal mine; it simply asked the governor to prevent mining through salmon
streams. For most Alaskans, that’s a no-brainer.
In his run for office, Governor Parnell promised Alaskans on
numerous occasions he’d “never trade one resource for another.” At the time, I
applauded that position. But the governor’s words belie his actions. Why?
Because the technology does not exist to build a new salmon stream after it’s
been mined down to 350 feet. If the coal company could miraculously build new
salmon streams, wouldn’t it make a heck of a lot more money building fish
streams in Oregon, Washington and California instead of strip mining Alaska’s
streams to ship low grade coal to China?
It’s not a single decision that raises concerns over the
governor’s blind eye toward salmon habitat protection, but rather, a host of
Earlier this year, for example, the Parnell Administration
rejected a request from commercial fishermen and private property owners to
provide public notice to Alaskans on permits that will destroy local salmon
habitat. The governor’s rationale? It would be too burdensome to let us
Alaskans participate in decisions affecting our salmon resources. In the
meantime, the state takes an average of 7 days to rubber-stamp these fish
habitat permits for big mining, oil and gas projects. In a later decision, the
Parnell Administration refused to halt the long-term removal of salmon streams
during mining operations.
Let’s not forget, the Parnell Administration played a
central role killing our Alaska Coastal Management Program, which was the only
law which gave Alaskans a meaningful voice in federal decisions affecting our
coastal salmon habitat. Now, Alaska – which possesses more coastline than all
the lower 48 states combined – is the only state where the federal government
can issue permits impacting salmon habitat without the state having a real seat
at the table.
Finally, there’s Alaska House Bill 77, introduced by the
governor earlier this year. HB 77 is a grab bag of anti-salmon, anti-democracy
provisions. Among other things, HB 77 grants new super powers to DNR, allowing
the Commissioner to completely ignore Alaskan voices and bypass fish habitat
rules when issuing permits. This provision is a massive concentration of
government power at the expense of Alaskans, and it undermines our ability to help
shape responsible resource decisions. Another provision strips away the rights
of Alaskans to keep enough water in our streams to support salmon. A state
court already found the Parnell Administration is illegally favoring out of
stream uses for mining over instream flows for salmon, so instead of obeying
the law and protecting salmon, the Parnell Administration now just wants to
change the law. These are but a couple of the reasons why HB 77 is the most
anti-salmon legislation to hit the streets since Frank Murkowski ran the show.
I grew up in Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula and I’ve fished
Cook Inlet my entire life. Regardless whether you fish commercially or for
sport, personal use or subsistence, we all need to take care of our breadbasket
– which is our salmon habitat. We know from painful experience that fisheries
have virtually disappeared due to habitat impacts in Europe, New England and
the Pacific Northwest. And we hear time and again that “Alaska has a world
class permitting system.” But if you look closely, we’re experiencing the very
same “death by a thousand cuts” phenomena that led to the demise of
once-healthy fish runs across the globe.
In his recent letter to Wal-Mart, Governor Parnell said the
right things:
“Alaska’s Constitution mandates that all fisheries must be
managed under the principle of maximum sustained yield, for the conservation of
our fish and their habitat and the maximum benefit of fishing families,
communities, and businesses.”
Mr. Governor, saying the right thing and doing the right
thing are two different things. So, do the right thing. Put the balance back
into Alaska’s salmon habitat management. Let’s manage our fish habitat for the
maximum benefit of all Alaskans. And that means no mining through wild Alaskan
salmon streams and “no” on HB 77.
Rob Ernst is a lifelong commercial fisherman from
Nikiski, and a Boardmember of Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based organization
working to protect clean water and healthy salmon in the Cook Inlet watershed.