Feds come around to state coastal revision

Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A draft environmental review of the state's plan to make radical revisions to its coastal management program has been released for public comment.

Despite initial criticism of the state's plan, federal officials have now adopted it as their preferred alternative.

The state's plan revision, underway since 2003, has caused an uproar among coastal governments because it would reduce local authority over development and subsistence activities, centering that authority with state officials.

Federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers that issue permits in the Juneau area would no longer be required by state law to defer to the Juneau Wetlands Management Plan, said Teri Camery, Juneau's coastal district coordinator.

"The gist of it is an erosion of local control and widespread habitat impacts," Camery said.

The coastal program - and the 33 individual coastal district plans - must to be streamlined because there is too much overlapping authority, and too many permitting delays for coastal development, according to state officials.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) initially found significant flaws with the Murkowski administration's plan revision submitted in Dec. 2004.

In response, Gov. Murkowski threatened to pull Alaska out of the federal program unless NOAA backed down on its criticism. After discussions with federal officials, the state resubmitted its plan in April with some changes, said Randy Bates, deputy director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resource's project management and permitting division.

One of NOAA's criticisms was that the state didn't conduct a formal hearing about the revision. The state held a hearing in May, Bates said.

NOAA dropped another major criticism of the plan revision - that it didn't adequately address habitat protection, Bates said.

NOAA's Office of Coastal Resource Management Program now agrees that state's plan now includes all the information it needs in order to get approved, Bates said.

Nevertheless, because the revision entails major changes that could have environmental consequences, NOAA is preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) study.

The draft was published on the Web for public comment on Sept. 19 and the public comment period lasts until Nov. 7.

NOAA will host two public hearings - one in Juneau on Oct. 31 and a second in Anchorage on Nov. 1.

Under a new state law that went into effect in May, NOAA must publish its final EIS by Jan. 1 or the state will withdraw from the federal coastal program.

If there is any meaningful opposition or delay to the EIS, "then we just lose the whole program," Camery said.

If that happened, the state could lose access to about $2.5 million in federal grants.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com

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