Communities ask Legislature for delay on coastal program overhaul

Representatives of coastal districts say they don't have time to revamp local plans

Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Communities across the state are asking the Alaska Legislature to put the brakes on a plan to restructure environmental oversight of coastal areas.

The Alaska Coastal Management Program has been in place since 1979 and gives state and local governments a role in reviewing and approving federal projects in coastal areas. Thirty-three of Alaska's 35 coastal zone districts have set policies to address local coastal management issues under the existing program.

The Legislature shifted regulatory control on environmental effects from communities to the state and federal government in 2003, arguing the coastal zone program had become redundant with state and federal laws.

The overhaul of the program is set to take place July 2006. Local districts now must submit their revised local policies to the state Department of Natural Resources by July to come into compliance with the new state program. But representatives of the coastal districts say they do not have enough time or the resources necessary to revamp their local plans.

Three separate proposals in the Legislature would push the deadline back by at least a year. A plan by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, would delay the deadline a year from the time federal government approves the state's revised program.

The coastal management plans can take much longer than that to create. For the North Slope Borough, it took five years before its plan was finalized in 1988. North Slope Borough environmental specialist Tom Lohman told the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee Monday it took so long because of input from oil companies.

"They are not a passive stakeholder when it comes to something as important as a coastal management program," Lohman said.

Now, he said, the borough is waiting for direction from the Department of Natural Resources on issues such as subsistence whaling by Inupiat Eskimos in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and management of wildlife refuges.

"We have not had final guidance from DNR as to whether we can craft meaningful policies dealing with subsistence on federal lands or waters or habitat protection on federal lands or waters on the North Slope," he said.

Lohman and other coastal districts argued that the state's proposed overhaul of the program has not been approved by the federal government's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. They questioned the logic of spending time and money to submit plans this summer if the federal government rejects the program.

Randy Bates, Alaska's Project Management and Permitting director, said the plans due in July are not necessarily the final product.

"When they get their plans in they can continue to refine them," he told the committee. "Our goal is to massage them into compliance."

Gov. Frank Murkowski, though, has threatened to eliminate the coastal management program entirely if the federal government does not abandon its objections to parts of the state's proposal.

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