Judge overrules state, says salmon initiative can go forward

A ballot initiative aimed at making salmon habitat protections more stringent will likely result in a fierce fight over the right use of state resources. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A controversial ballot initiative intended to protect salmon habitat has cleared a major hurdle, setting up what could be an intense political fight.

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A judge in Anchorage on Monday ruled that Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott was wrong to deny the initiative, organized by the nonprofit Stand for Salmon.

Mallott rejected the ballot measure in September, arguing it would tie the state’s hands and prioritize salmon habitat over other potential uses of state land, like mining or oil development. The state said if it’s enacted, the measure could complicate efforts to build projects like roads, pipelines and the proposed Pebble Mine. The initiative is also opposed by a wide range of industry groups.

At a hearing last week, Valerie Brown with Trustees for Alaska, who represented Stand for Salmon, argued the ballot initiative isn’t aimed at prohibiting development, though it would add to the permitting process.

Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner agreed. In his ruling, he called it “pure speculation” to predict the impact of the initiative.

“The court has no competent evidence regarding the impact of the initiative,” Rindner wrote. “Nor does such evidence exist.”

Rindner said the initiative leaves enough room for the legislature to decide how resources are used.

“Because the impact of the initiative can only be determined after legislative action occurs, the court finds, as a matter of law, that the initiative is not an allocation and is thus constitutionally permissible,” Rindner wrote.

Mike Wood, one of the ballot measure’s organizers, applauded the decision.

“I think the ruling that the judge had was awesome,” Wood said. “Set politics aside and read it for what it is. And I think he did that.”

Wood, a commercial fisherman, was involved in opposition to the Susitna Dam. Two of the initiative’s other organizers, Gayla Hoseth and Brian Kraft, have been involved in fighting the proposed Pebble Mine.

Marleanna Hall is executive director of the Resource Development Council, one of the groups opposed to the ballot initiative. Hall said she’s disappointed, and her group is asking the state to appeal.

“Unfortunately, this initiative, as it is, poses a grave threat to community and resource development,” Hall said. “It puts economic activities highly at risk.”

Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bakalar said the state is evaluating whether to appeal the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court.

“Clearly we disagree with the court’s legal conclusion that the measure is a constitutional use of the initiative,” Bakalar wrote in an email. “Whether to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court includes an evaluation process that will take several weeks to complete, and that process is underway. In the meantime, we are complying with the superior court’s order and working on printing petition booklets for circulation as quickly as possible.”

Stand for Salmon can now begin collecting signatures. It aims to get the initiative on the ballot in 2018.

Barring a Supreme Court decision blocking the initiative, Brown of Trustees for Alaska said, “the next decision is whether this is a good idea or not. That’s the decision of the voters, not of the Lieutenant Governor.”

The initiative isn’t the only effort to make state laws protecting salmon habitat more stringent. It’s similar to a bill introduced in the state House by Kodiak Republican Louise Stutes, and co-sponsored by Anchorage Democrats Andy Josephson and Les Gara.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the bill was introduced by Reps. Stutes, Josephson and Gara. In fact, the legislation was introduced by Rep. Stutes and later co-sponsored by Reps. Josephson and Gara.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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