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My Turn: Alaskans lose rights without coastal management program

Posted: July 6, 2011 - 6:37pm

The demise of our Alaska Coastal Management Program should awaken every Alaskan.

The federal Coastal Zone Management Act is the embodiment of the most balanced form of federalism — with federalism representing that ever-tense dynamic between federal and states’ rights. The law requires no coastal state to participate. But if a state does, it gets two significant benefits: federal money to help manage its coastal zone, and — most importantly — the legal right to say if and how development in offshore waters should occur.

The dispute that led to the downfall of Alaska’s coastal management program centered on a basic concept most Alaskans embrace: the notion of local rights. The idea that government should be limited, and the people most impacted by a project — those on the ground, the people who fish or hunt to feed their families, the communities that rely on sustainable resources — have the legal right to say “no” to a project that doesn’t make sense.

Gov. Sean Parnell falsely argues that even without the law, we’ll still have a chance to “comment” on projects that affect our rights. But he knows the truth: “commenting” on a project is one thing, having a legal right to stand up for local concerns in court is a wholly different thing. With the loss of the ACMP, we have lost a vital legal right. Now, Alaskans can “comment” as much as we want; but we just handed the management of our rich offshore resources — and the local jobs they support — to the federal government.

This is not a partisan issue. I watched the Alaska Oil and a Gas Association (AOGA) push around the administration of former Gov. Tony Knowles Administration years ago, until Pat Galvin — who then headed the coastal management program — finally helped adopt AOGA’s agenda and cut local Alaskans from crucial local decision making. The deepest damage, however, came from former Gov. Frank Murkowski and his aide Jim Clark — who ripped apart the law and eliminated local Alaskan communities from any semblance of control over their local resources. Galvin again played a leading role, along with Marty Rutherford, in misleading Alaskans and our legislators that the changes were in Alaska’s best interests. This year, in the final hours of the Alaska Coastal Management Program, oil, gas and mining corporations teamed-up to force Parnell, Speaker of the House Mike Chenault and others to toss Alaskan rights under the bus.

But local rights should not be a partisan issue. If you poll any Alaskan — from tea party and fiscal conservative to middle-of-the-roaders to tree huggers — they favor local rights over top-down decisions by bureaucrats under the thumb of well-heeled corporations. It’s Mom, apple pie and the flag. We fought a revolution over it and we formed a state because of it. Local people should make local decisions.

And that’s why the demise of Alaska’s coastal management program reflects a much deeper problem across our state and across our nation. Corporations own us. They buy and sell our politicians, and they continue to drive a stake into the heart of our democracy in their relentless pursuit of profit. Insurance corporations, banking corporations, mining corporations, oil corporations. The Supreme Court has ruled they have the same constitutional rights as living, breathing Americans, and the corporations use these phony rights every single day to enrich themselves at our expense.

The loss of our coastal management program is a giant nail in the coffin of our basic, fundamental right to decide what we — as Alaskans — want to embrace as economic development out our own front doors. But with every loss comes opportunity. Now it’s up to local governments — our boroughs, our cities and our Tribes —– to assert their legal rights to enact safeguards that reflect local values and to control our future.

• Shavelson is the Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based organization formed in 1995 to protect salmon habitat and water quality.

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