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Department backtracks on permitting bill hearings

Posted: November 20, 2013 - 12:06am

JUNEAU — Plans to hold public meetings on a controversial permitting bill have been called off.

Deputy Natural Resources Commissioner Ed Fogels had committed to public meetings in an effort to improve understanding about HB77. But with the holidays approaching and the legislative session two months away, he said the plan just wasn’t workable.

“So, I have to eat crow on that,” he told APRN (http://bit.ly/1bMfcF7 ).

DNR has given at least 15 presentations so far and plans to meet with stakeholder groups and take individual calls. Fogels said that require less staff effort and less advance notice. He encouraged anyone with questions to call or email.

“Any of us will talk to anybody at any time,” he said.

HB77 is among the bills proposed by Gov. Sean Parnell as a way to improve state permitting. The measure would limit who can appeal DNR decisions and allow only public entities to apply for water reservations to guarantee a certain level of flow in a river or stream for things like fish and habitat protection. That provision generated considerable discussion during the last legislative session, as it means individuals, nonprofits and tribal groups would no longer be able to apply for water reservations.

The measure also would give the commissioner power to issue general permits to projects without public notice, provided those projects are unlikely to cause “significant and irreparable harm” to the land.

“We’re trying to make it so that people have to kind of justify a little ... why they would actually be harmed by a DNR decision, rather than just simply not liking it, sitting in an arm chair in some other part of the world just throwing monkey wrenches at our decisions,” Fogels said. “I don’t think that’s good public policy or right.”

HB77 passed the House during the last session but stalled in the Senate. It is not clear if there will be additional opportunities for public testimony when the Legislature reconvenes.

United Fishermen of Alaska was among the groups that hoped for public meetings during the interim. While the group hasn’t taken a formal position on the bill, it raised questions about the bill’s impacts on fish habitat and the pace with which the bill was moving during the last session.

The group’s executive director, Julianne Curry, said DNR has been good about answering questions since the session ended.

“You know the process that they’re working on right now is not necessarily the end of the world,” she said. “I think for transparency, it may be a better idea to hold a few public hearings.”

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