With each passing minute at the Legislative Information Office in Kenai, it became increasingly obvious that not all of the 25 people that came to give public testimony on House Bill 77 Wednesday would be heard.
Two days after the Senate Resources committee released the updated bill, Alaskans from all across the state were given 90 minutes with each person limited to two-minutes to speak to the amendments made to Gov. Sean Parnell’s 25-page land management bill.
Of the 47 people who testified, two were in favor of the bill. Both represented mining development interests. The overwhelming majority of people who spoke were tribal leaders, fishers and environmentalists who argued that the bill -even in its revised form- undermines the public’s ability to challenge decisions of water reservation made by the Department of Natural Resources.
Just four people at the Kenai LIO were able to speak. Steve Schoonmaker was one of them. The Kasilof man said he had been fishing for more than 30 years and salmon meant a lot to him. During his two-minute testimony, Schoonmaker read a poem he wrote asking the committee to “listen up” to the wave of opposition to the proposed bill.
“We have this conflict with development and habitat; its called management and stewardship,” he said. “In a place like this where salmon means so much more and is so rare in the whole world, lets please work together.”
If the committee gives the people a chance to speak, they should exercise that right and if they don’t, the government will not give them the opportunity, he said.
Gerald Brookman, Clark Whitney and Robert Ruffner also testified against HB77. Ruffner, Executive Director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, a non-profit habitat protection group, said he is familiar with regulatory permitting requirements in multi-jurisdictional environments. He said he doesn’t think every water right or every reservation should be granted.
“There needs to be a fair process for consideration and a clear pathway to reach a decision,” he said. “We must make decisions to help guide us and evaluate the risk before investing tens of thousands of dollars to pursue a reservation.”
Committee chair Sen. Cathy Giessel R-Anchorage said for the process to be fair she went with a round-robin format to hear from each of the LIO regions instead of going one area at a time. She said the comment sign-up list at the Homer LIO was four pages long and if they started there, a lot of other people in other areas would not have the opportunity to speak.
“It worked out we got to hear from every part of the state,” she said. “We heard a great deal of repetition with the same message. It was hard for me to figure out what some of their objections were.”
Giessel said while most of the public testimony was against the bill she has received e-mails in support of the changes. People were also encouraged to send in written letters. She asked LIO staff around the state to get a count of people who didn’t get to speak and whether those people were for or against the bill.
Following the hearing, Giessel agreed to hold a second round of public testimony on Friday at 3:30 p.m. She said speakers will still have only two-minutes, the standard time allowed, however due the public meeting will go “as long as needed.”
“No Alaskans will be turned away,” she said.
Sen. Peter Micciche R-Soldotna, also on the resource committee, said after speaking with constituents during town hall meetings in Homer and Soldotna last weekend, he said there were three key issues with the original bill. The “notwithstanding” language in section 1, the level of effect, “significant of irreparable harm,” and the inability for people to apply for in-stream water reservations.
A lot of the issues he heard from people during the testimony were in the old version and have been laws since statehood, he said.
“My goal is to work with folks and to give them the chance to digest the actual changes, as opposed to the incorrect and exaggerated effects claimed by extreme Anchorage environmental groups with an obvious anti-development-of-any-kind agenda,” he wrote in an email.
Of the 25 present at the Kenai LIO, only one was in support of the changes made to HB77. Paul Shadura, a representative from the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, said he appreciated the time and effort from local senators Giessel and Micciche.
“We understand everything that happens within the public laws requires some bits of compromise,” he said. “Every time we see these changes we feel more positive movement to clarify and protect interests.”
Shadura, who did not testify, said as a commercial setnetter, he is familiar with the general permitting process and described it as inconvenient for the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association to have to go through the 60-day process to re-permit every year for each of the organization’s water reservation projects.
Paul Zimmerman, also in attendance at the Kenai LIO said he felt the intent of HB77 was to take the public out of the process and give more authority to the DNR commissioner. When he raised his concerns to Micciche, he said he was disparaged for opposing the senator’s compromises.
“More and more legislation and proposals are coming up that are designed to take the public out of the process and this is another step,” he said. “Our state constitution was founded on ideals of public participation in their government. Whose interests is (Micciche) serving if he’s not serving the public? This is un-American.”
Rosemary McGuire, who testified in Cordova, said the limited amount of time the public was given to comment on a bill that limits public comment is ludicrous.
Daniel Lum from Barrow, who testified at the Fairbanks LIO, said water rights are important to his family because his family’s livelihood relies on salmon.
“Can you not hear the people?” he asked the committee. “How can you consider this bill when nearly the entire state is against it. It hardly seems legal.”
One commenter from the Sitka LIO asked the resource committee to submit a resolution to Parnell asking him to apologize to all Alaskans for “introducing this muzzling of Alaskans Act.” He called the bill a piece of legislative trash, drawing laughs and applause in the Kenai office.
Elisabeth Schoessler, 19, drove down from Anchorage to testify at the Kenai LIO, thinking she would have a better opportunity to be heard. She was next on the list to speak, but Giessel closed the comment period at 5 p.m.
Schoessler, a freshman at the University of Alaska Anchorage and graduate of Skyview High School, said she spends her summers fishing and is concerned the bill is too flawed to protest Alaska’s natural resources.
“It sacrifices Alaskan voices, gives DNR broad and unchecked power, would allow corporate interests to supercede Alaskan rights,” she said. “The bill was developed behind closed doors and written without Alaskan input. It ransacks native tribes, the environment and our democracy.”
Giessel said one of the things that stood out during Wednesday’s testimony was the specific content about the feasibility study for the development of the hydroelectric dam at Chikuminuk Lake needed to be pulled out of the bill. Before the committee met on Wednesday, legislators from that area asked for the study to be removed and the money to be put toward other projects. She said following Friday’s testimony, the dam study will be removed and the committee will discuss other amendments.
After deliberations, the bill would move back to the rules committee. Because of the changes since the bill passed the house, representatives will need to approve the changes. She declined to predict if the bill would be completed before the legislative session ends in April.
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org