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Local governments and some state legislators are worried that if Gov. Frank Murkowski pulls the state from a coastal management program, Alaska would lose its influence over federal projects.
Murkowski told federal regulators Wednesday that he will withdraw Alaska from the Coastal Management Program if they don't approve his administration's rewritten coastal management rules.
The federal program provides a joint state-federal review for coastal development.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials on Jan. 28 declined to approve the state's amended coastal rules because they don't meet minimum federal requirements, they said.
Some local officials, already unhappy with the state's revised coastal rules, fear Murkowski's threat to withdraw could eliminate their role in federal decisions.
"We'd lose entirely our influence over federal projects," said Teri Camery, Juneau's coastal management coordinator.
Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the governor's letter was a bombshell that could backfire on Alaska.
In addition to ceding state rights, Kerttula said, withdrawing from the coastal program could leave developers without a strong state ally in oil and gas projects on federal lands or waters.
Local, state and federal officials have used the program to balance coastal development with environmental protection and subsistence needs. The program requires federal officials to give "due deference," and their decisions must be consistent with state policies.
But Murkowski said in his Feb. 23 letter to NOAA that the program had evolved into a "complex, confusing set of requirements" that delayed project approval.
Local officials countered last week that many bureaucratic snarls in the program were getting fixed, and that the administration's proposed revisions chipped away at their constitutional right to self-governance.
Among other things, the state's amended rules for the program would reduce local coastal districts' ability to act on policy matters that are regulated under federal or state statutes.
"Without the coastal management program, what guarantee do these people have when decisions are being made for them in Anchorage or Juneau?" said John Oscar, program director for a coastal district that serves 38 villages in the Yukon- Kuskokwim Delta, in written testimony provided to the House State Affairs Committee last Thursday.
"The few remaining obstacles" to approving the state plan can be resolved through further discussions, Eldon Hoat, director of NOAA's office of ocean and coastal resource management, told the committee in his written testimony.
Hoat said his agency had just received Murkowski's letter and wasn't ready to respond.
The committee is considering extending a July 1 deadline to allow coastal management districts more time to revise their plans in accordance with the state's revisions.
The state's revisions were mandated by House Bill 191, a Murkowski measure passed by the Legislature in 2003, said Camery, the Juneau coastal management coordinator. Because of a tight deadline and difficulty in interpreting the state's plan, many communities said they cannot meet the deadline.
But Camery said Murkowski's threat to totally withdraw from the program is more worrisome.
"His letter turned the issue of state's rights on its head," Camery said.
A state official said he hopes for resolution.
"I would just as soon keep the program," said Bill Jeffress, director of the state Department of Natural Resource's office of habitat management and permitting.
But Jeffress said NOAA's mandates for the state plan would "add a layer of regulation, making it more complex ... without any additional benefit."
Jeffress said if the state withdraws from the program, it could still have some input in federal projects like oil and gas and offshore aquaculture.
"We could still provide comments (to federal regulators)," Jeffress said Friday.
Kerttula responded that comments by the state wouldn't have the same weight. If Alaska withdraws from the coastal management program, neither the state nor local governments will have adequate say on federal projects, Kerttula said.
Small communities in northern Alaska that lack home rule would lose entirely their jurisdiction over coastal development, Camery said.
Juneau has home rule and could maintain its rules for coastal development, but developers would no longer have "one-stop shopping" for their coastal projects, she said.
The Juneau Coastal Management Plan has more than 80 policies, including those related to coastal development, timber harvesting, habitat and mining.
The local plan was recently used to set about 20 restrictions on Goldbelt Corp.'s controversial Cascade Point ferry terminal near Echo Cove, which would service the Kensington gold mine.
Some of the restrictions included protecting habitat for spawning herring and reducing the size of the breakwater.
The city's changes "didn't make it a popular project (among environmentalists) but improved it," said Peter Freer, Juneau's planning supervisor.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.