Gov. Frank Murkowski signed a controversial bill Wednesday that restricts the authority of Alaska's 34 local coastal districts.
The bill revamping the Alaska Coastal Management Program would not allow the districts to regulate environmental impacts covered by state and federal standards.
"I know the criticism is we're relaxing, if you will, and trying to unwind, if you will, some of the environmental responsibilities. That's not the case," the governor said. "The goal is to create a new coastal management program that retains the benefits of the act of 1972 but eliminates some of the complexities ... built into the program."
The bill eliminates the Alaska Coastal Policy Council, which used to have the authority to develop statewide standards and to approve district coastal management plans. The new law transfers that responsibility to the Department of Natural Resources.
The governor also signed a bill designating DNR the lead agency for resource development.
"The purpose of the bill is to facilitate and expedite resource development in Alaska. There are now more agencies than ever have been involved in the permitting process. This streamlines the process and puts accountability where it belongs," Murkowski said.
Environmental groups that protested loudly throughout the legislative process call the bills "short-sighted."
"Basically, I think (the bills) represent a consolidation of power to regulate industrial activities ... into the hands of one man, (DNR Commissioner) Tom Irwin," said Matt Davidson, spokesman for the Alaska Conservation Voters, a coalition of 32 environmental groups in the state. "The local communities are really concerned about losing their authority to regulate activities. It really is a wholesale gutting of the local voices and guidance of the local communities."
The city also has expressed concerns about the changes to the coastal management program.
Peter Freer, the planning supervisor at the city's Department of Community Development, said it's not clear how the change will affect the city. But he said planners are worried about the loss of local control.
"The Juneau District Coastal Management Program has a number of enforceable policies that are adopted as part of the state coastal management program, and those enforceable policies will become more limited," he said.
Freer said the effects will become clearer after DNR adopts statewide standards for coastal management plans.
"Only then are we going to have a clearer sense of what will remain in terms of what we can do locally in our program," he said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.