Upper Valley residents will have an opportunity to learn about and be heard regarding the controversial House Bill 77 next week. The bill passed the state House last session, but was held up in the Senate. Now, the bill could be up for discussion early in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in less than two weeks. According to Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels, the bill is designed to streamline the DNR permitting process. He says the current system means a longer-than-necessary application process and permit backlogs. Opponents of the bill say that it takes the public’s voice out of management of state lands. Some have even gone as far as to call it the “Silencing Alaskans Act.”
There are three main issues that opponents of the bill disagree with. If passed, HB77 would require anyone appealing a DNR decision to cite actual harm as a result of the decision. Currently, someone simply has to disagree in order to appeal to the Commissioner. Also, instream water reservations would be changed. A water reservation means that any development on waterways must continue to allow a certain amount of flow. These reservations are often made to protect fish habitat. If HB77 becomes law, then only government groups could apply for reservations. Individual citizens, NGOs, and companies, including Alaska Native Corporations, would no longer be eligible. Finally, the bill would allow the Commissioner of DNR to issue general land-use permits so long as he or she believes granting the permit is not likely to cause significant damage to the environment. These general permits would not require the same public process that currently exists for any DNR permit.
Deputy Commissioner Fogels says he believes these provisions, as well as the rest of the twenty-four page bill, will help DNR to do its job more efficiently. Attendees at meetings to discuss the bill in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula have overwhelmingly disagreed. The meeting in Talkeetna will consist of a presentation by Deputy Commissioner Fogels and a Q and A session. State Senator Mike Dunleavy has also been confirmed as an attendee. It will be held on Tuesday, January 14th at 6:00 pm at the elementary school.