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Frank Murkowski's legacy is putting Southeast Alaska's best salmon producing river, the Taku, at risk.
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A Canadian mining company wants to run a hovercraft-like-barge on the Taku River to the proposed Tulsequah Chief Mine. U.S. and Canadian resource agencies, First Nations, and fishing organizations have expressed concerns about the effect this hoverbarge may have on salmon. The United Fishermen of Alaska came out in opposition to the hoverbarge. Despite these concerns, two Murkowski-era changes to permitting may have already decided the fate of our salmon. These changes are the move of the Habitat Division from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to the Department of Natural Resource and changes to the Alaska Coastal Management Program.
It is no secret that the Habitat Division was moved to DNR to make permitting development easier. This change took permitting power out of Fish and Game's hands and consolidated it in DNR's hands. This has led to a disconnect between the expert fisheries biologists of Fish and Game and the people issuing permits that affect fish habitat. DNR and Fish and Game are attempting to address these problems, but this new system hasn't yet proved itself to work. The hoverbarge will be the first large development on a major salmon river to go through this new permitting system. Do we really want the Taku River to be the test case for Murkowski's Habitat Division move?
The Alaska Coastal Management Program was created to ensure that development projects were consistent with sustaining the resources of our coastal areas. A great idea, but some Murkowski-era changes have left this program broken. These changes took control out of local districts' hands and consolidated it in agencies that don't have the local expertise needed to make these decisions and removed critical habitat protections. Do we want this broken program to decide if industrial barge traffic with vehicles that have never been tested on a river like the Taku is consistent with sustaining our salmon?
Fish need to be the first priority on the Taku. Commercial fishing and processing jobs that this river supports will be much more beneficial to Alaska than the small income that may come from this short-term Canadian mine. To protect the Taku's rich fisheries, the Palin administration and DNR need to halt permitting until they can assure us that they will protect Taku salmon.
Rob Cadmus is water quality and mining organizer of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau.