State split on coastal issue

ANCHORAGE — A loud campaign over a ballot measure to provide management of coastal projects in Alaska has attracted two former governors on opposite sides -- and big money from industry trying to kill it.


The fight will likely cost more than $1 million, most of that being spent by opponents urging defeat in the Aug. 28 primary. Both sides accuse the other of campaign irregularities.

Local governments are divided. The Anchorage Assembly, the Wasilla City Council and the Mat-Su Borough are against it. The North Slope, Northwest Arctic, and Kodiak Island boroughs are among those backing it.

The biggest challenge for voters may be Ballot Measure 2’s complexity. The voter initiative will take up an entire page, 703 words, on the ballot. Opponents say it’s the wordiest ballot measure in Alaska history.

So what’s all the ruckus about?

Supporters acknowledge the program is complicated but say the goal is simple: Resurrection of a state coastal management program that succeeded for more than 30 years.

The program began in 1977 under then-Gov. Jay Hammond to give local communities a voice in projects that could affect their coasts: docks and cabins, mines and oil fields, residential and commercial developments.

Former Gov. Tony Knowles says the program worked under five governors: Hammond, Bill Sheffield, Steve Cowper, Wally Hickel and himself.

“None of us found it in any way a problem. We used it to facilitate,” Knowles said last week at a news conference called by supporters. A number of North Slope oil fields, including Northstar, Badami and Alpine, were developed with coastal management in place, he said. So was Red Dog mine, the big lead and zinc mine near Kotzebue, the former governor said.

On the other side is former Gov. Frank Murkowski, who has been writing opinion pieces urging defeat.

“I just don’t believe we should legislate through proposition,” Murkowski said in a telephone interview from his summer home in Wrangell.

Depending on who is talking, the program was either gutted or reformed in 2003 during the Murkowski administration.

A statewide coastal management board made up of local elected leaders and state commissioners was eliminated. The entire program was scaled back and placed within the state Department of Natural Resources.

While initiative leaders are promoting Knowles as a marquee backer, Murkowski is working on his own to defeat it.

It took one trapper 7 1/2 years to get a decision on his cabin, Murkowski said. “If you believe in more government, you are going to support it,” he said of the ballot measure.


Alaska all alone

Lawmakers split on whether a minimal program was the answer. Murkowski’s version expired last year in a legislative stalemate.

A group calling itself the Alaska Sea Party led by Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho gathered signatures of about 30,000 voters to get the initiative on the ballot, in the hope of restoring what was lost.

Now Alaska is the only coastal state in the country without a coastal management program. Under federal law, if a state has a program, the federal government must follow state guidelines in making decisions about projects.

“That gives the state the upper hand,” Knowles said. “That’s why states like Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas -- all of them have coastal management programs and they are very active in it. It’s not because they enjoy an extra layer of bureaucracy, more regulation.”

Supporters say coastal management requires government agencies to coordinate on projects and ensures local communities get a voice. If voters approve the measure, a new 13-member coastal policy board would be created. The governor would appoint the members: nine from coastal communities and four who are state commissioners.

Each of nine coastal regions in the state would craft individual coastal plans, and the state board would have to approve them. A new state agency, the Division of Ocean and Coastal Management, would be created within the existing Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. That agency would make sure that projects conform with local plans and work with developers, under the ballot measure.

A 15-page law would be enacted. The state agency would write regulations to fill in the gaps.

That’s too much new government, and too many unknowns, opponents say. Supporters respond that rules are always written after laws are passed, and that the new state division, state board, and local coastal districts would be similar to what existed before the Murkowski-era changes.

Projects wouldn’t be vetoed through the program, but developers might have to make changes to avoid disrupting whales, salmon or other sea life, said state Rep. Paul Seaton, a Republican from Homer who co-chairs the House Resources Committee and supports the ballot measure.

For instance, a proposed dock might have to be moved so it wouldn’t tear up an eel grass bed noted in the local plan as vital for juvenile fish survival, he said.

“It is much more of a balancing act than a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ “ he said.

As it stands, the state has lost some control, Seaton said. Consider fish farming, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supports. A state law prohibits fin fish farming -- shellfish farming is allowed -- to protect Alaska wild salmon stocks. But without coastal management, a salmon farm could be developed offshore in federal waters, Seaton said.


The opposition

A number of industry groups have lined up against the measure. As of its last report to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Vote No on 2 had raised $768,000. Among the big contributors was Shell Oil Co., with $150,000.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the oil company strongly supports local input.

“We feel, however, that the language in this particular initiative creates an unworkable, additional layer of government bureaucracy, potential permitting delays and increased litigation risks to our offshore program,” Smith said.

On the other side, the Alaska Sea Party had raised $150,000, including $10,000 each from Bristol Bay Native Corp. and Pebble Mine opponent Robert Gillam, and more than $15,000 from the North Slope Borough.

New campaign disclosure reports are due on Tuesday.

Both sides have accused the other of failing to disclose top contributors on some promotional material. Those complaints have yet to be resolved.

The face of the opposition is Kurt Fredriksson, who worked 35 years for the state and was commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation during the Murkowski administration.

He says coastal management is needed, but the ballot measure is flawed on various fronts and doesn’t even give an outlet for local voices. The thorny issue should go back to the Legislature, he said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau and a former state lawyer who worked in coastal management, said the measure provides for local input.

Seaton and other supporters say lawmakers couldn’t reach agreement before and it would take years to get a program through from scratch.

If the ballot measure passes, the Legislature would tweak parts of it, to make it work better, Seaton said.


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