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DNR Deputy Commissioner Visits Talkeetna to Discuss House Bill 77

by Phillip Manning ~ January 15th, 2014

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On Tuesday, Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels was in Talkeetna to discuss the controversial House Bill 77 with residents of the Upper Valley.  As with meetings around the state, the bill drew staunch criticism from the dozens of people who turned out for the meeting.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning was there, and has this report:

The meeting, which had been requested by the Talkeetna Community Council, drew residents from a number of Upper Valley communities as well as State Senator Mike Dunleavy.  DNR Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels began by presenting the goals of House Bill 77, namely streamlining the DNR permitting process, and addressing the most common themes of concern from the public.  Most of the opposition involves changes to instream flow reservations, the issuing of general permits, and changes to the process to appeal a DNR decision.  Fogels opened by saying that he was aware that change was likely coming for HB77.

“I think everyone has issues and concerns with this bill, so we understand that.  We’re looking for input.  I have a pretty good sense, already, of where the pressure points are in the bill–what is causing people concern.  We’re open to working with Senator Dunleavy and the legislature to address those concerns.”

Ed Fogels says that the intent of the bill has never been to remove Alaskans from the DNR decision-making process. During the question and answer period, Deputy Commissioner Fogels repeatedly emphasized that he believes it is not DNR’s intent to curtail public process.  Questions ranged from how DNR could guarantee a future Commissioner would not use the bill to override statutes written by other state agencies to the scale of projects that could potentially be covered under the general permitting provision.  That provision would allow a different process for permits that the Commissioner believes do not pose a significant environmental threat.  Statements made by many area residents after the Q-and-A also centered around concerns over imprecise language in HB77.  Bush resident Becky Long addressed her statement to Senator Dunleavy and warned of what she sees as  the consequences of passing the bill as-is.

“I think what’s going to happen is–some of this language is very vague, very unclear–you’re going to have future land-use conflicts because of this bill, as it is, and they’re going to come to you to get it resolved, so you’re going to be dealing with this in the future.”

Talkeetna resident Ruth Wood is not convinced that the bill could be changed in a way to make it acceptable.  She says that the ability to grant general permits without the current public process would be a dangerous concentration of authority.

“Regardless of what the intent is, this bill is about power.  It will concentrate unprecedented power in the hands of one individual.  That one individual is the Commissioner of DNR.  The Commissioner is appointed.  The Commissioner is not elected.  The Commissioner does not represent the people of Alaska.”

Chase resident Paul Bratton spoke about the restriction of appeals of DNR decisions.  Currently, the statute requires that a party be “aggrieved” by a decision, which allows substantial latitude.  As it is currently written, House Bill 77 would change the statute to require that someone must be “substantially and adversely affected” in order to appeal.  Bratton says that is unnecessary due to the way that the courts currently require plaintiffs to substantiate a case.

“The Alaska Supreme Court has set a standard of looking to see if there is a real issue being addressed by a person.  If there is a real issue, they’ve allowed it to go forward.”

Talkeetna resident Scott Holcomb voiced concerns about the change in HB 77 that would make it so individuals could no longer apply for an instream flow reservation to guarantee a certain amount of water flows through a given stream regardless of what development might take place.

“This bill restricts Alaskans’ ability to apply for water reservations in streams, however corporations, including foreign corporations, could be allowed to take water out of a stream.  The way I see it is [I], as an Alaskan, will have no right to keep water in a stream for fish, wildlife, etc., but outsiders could take water out for industrial use.  This seems wrong to me.”

Regarding water reservations, Deputy Commissioner Fogels says that DNR is considering reversing course on the current language and allowing individuals, NGO’s, tribes, and Alaska Native Corporations to continue applying for water reservations.  He also said multiple times at the meeting that DNR recognizes that some language needs to be clarified.

After listening to the two and a half hour meeting, Seanator Muke Dunleavy says that he believes  that work will be done on House Bill 77 before it goes back to the Senate floor for a vote.

“I would anticipate there’s going to be revisions.  To what extent, I’m not sure, right now, until these meetings and these hearings take place….Some of these general themes,I think, are going to be discussed in detail, probably starting early in the session, and if it’s a bill that needs more work, it’s probably going to take more time to get it done.  I don’t think people are going to try to rush something through.

Session begins next week, and Alaskans around the state will be watching to see what changes are made to the bill that has generated nearly thirty public meetings and a long list of opponents.

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