Officials with Alaska's Department of Natural Resources got an earful May 20 during a statewide teleconference called to elicit public comment on proposed changes to the Alaska Coastal Management Program.
Nearly to a person, speakers from Sitka to Barrow criticized what they said were regulatory changes that would effectively wipe out local participation in decisions about development in Alaska's extensive coastal zone.
Marlene Campbell, government relations director for the city and borough of Sitka, said the state's changes would result in the loss of almost half of the enforceable local policies and threaten the rest with major revisions.
"There seems to be no end in sight as to what the revisions will do to diminish our seat at the table," Campbell said.
Kotzebue resident Walter Porter, planning director for the Northwest Arctic Borough, said the borough recognized the importance of coastal development for local employment in a prosperous state economy.
"At the same time, the borough must have adequate tools to ensure that coastal resources and uses are adequately protected," Porter said. "The changes to the ACMP have removed these tools from the borough and other coastal districts."
Porter predicted the state's proposed changes would "profoundly affect" the borough's ability to participate in reviewing coastal development proposals for consistency with coastal zone management regulations.
Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper, warned that the capacity of the state's coastal areas to withstand the increasing demands upon it was limited.
"That's why it breaks my heart today to see a combination of arrogance, ignorance, disdain and incompetence pushing Alaska's coastal zone towards a future much like that of New Jersey," a state facing serious coastal pollution problems.
Shavelson said Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration had "taken a well-balanced, relatively fair and open process, and turned it into a rubber-stamp permitting mill."
In January 2004, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed a resolution in support of continued local participation in ACMP decisions.
Efforts to rewrite the state's coastal management plan have been underway since the Legislature passed a bill in 2003 (HB 191) calling for program revisions aimed at streamlining the permitting process. But standards written to replace the existing program met resistance from the federal office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which, among other things, questioned the changes with regards to their impact on participation by citizens and local municipalities.
When portions of a revised state proposal submitted in December were again rejected by OCRM Director Eldon Hout, Gov. Frank Murkowski threatened to let the entire state coastal management program lapse by July. He said the state would make certain alterations "as required by law," but other changes OCRM had sought had no legal basis and would not be made.
By April, the OCRM had backed off, saying that while issues still remained over aspects of the state's proposal, those need not delay preliminary approval of the new state regulations. Problems could be dealt with, the OCRM suggested, before final approval of the program by NOAA.
Not everyone was critical of the state's regulatory changes. Peter Hanley, chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association's permit streamlining task group, said the ACMP was a voluntary program and not the only measures available to ensure coastal protections.
"There is already a comprehensive regulatory framework at the federal, state and local levels to protect coastal resources and guide coastal development," he said. "The primary reason behind House Bill 191 was to recognize the framework already in place, refocus the ACMP on unique local concerns, and retain the right of the state and coastal districts to have a seat at the table for federal activities."
Hanley said the association supported most of the state's interpretation of the Coastal Zone Management Act articulated in its various responses to the OCRM.
Shavelson, on the other hand, said Murkowski administration officials had "stretched the truth" when they claimed the reforms envisioned in HB 191 would not cost the state money and would preserve meaningful local control over decisions affecting local coastal re-sources.
"We know what happened," he said.
Drafters of HB 191, he said, ignored how valuable coastal resources were to current and future generations, the importance of healthy habitat to healthy fisheries, or the way coastal zones support human life.
"Instead, HB 101's supporters focused on short-term expedience, faster development and less public participation," he said.
Heralding permit streamlining, HB 191 has actually resulted in a "confusing, frustrating and incomprehensible process," Shavelson said, adding that it has been no surprise to him that he has met no one from coastal Alaska able to explain how the revision process works or how locals might influence how consistency reviews would occur in the future under the state's proposed changes.
Randy Bates, deputy director of the Office of Project Management and Permitting, noted the concerns voiced by those testifying that local participation would be marginalized by the proposed regulatory changes, but said that while the revisions changed the landscape of the process, they did not represent a loss of local say.
"It changes the structure of participation," he said.
HB 191, Bates said, mandated reform of the coastal zone management program, not abandonment of coastal protections.
"The bottom line concern is: are the resources protected?" he said. "In reforming the ACMP, we are demonstrating the resources are protected."
Bates said the state now has the OCRM's commitment for preliminary approval of the state's revisions to the ACMP by July 1, and for final approval by Jan. 1, 2006, which would meet a deadline set out in Senate Bill 102, which extended HB 191's original July 1, 2005 deadline for federal approval.
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