Alaska’s fish get big win in court
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Alaska’s fish get big win in court

An Alaska Superior Court ruling today allows Alaskans to move forward with a proposed ballot measure that will update and strengthen regulations protecting fish habitat.

Photo by USFWS

“The judge agreed with us that Alaskans have a constitutional right to say how fish habitat is protected,” said Valerie Brown, legal director for Trustees for Alaska and the attorney who argued the case for the plaintiff, Stand for Salmon. “What this means is that the initiative will get certified and Alaskans can start collecting the signatures it needs to get the initiative on the ballot.”

Oral arguments took place Oct. 3. The judge issued the summary judgement on Oct. 9.

A Stand for Salmon press release explains how the proposed initiative would update 60-year-old law governing development in salmon habitat and ensure that Alaskans get a voice in the permitting process.

Initiative sets guidelines for protecting fish habitat

Brown said the ballot measure contains language about water quality, temperature and flow, and sets up a permitting process that looks at the level of impact a project has on fish habitat.

It will not stop all big projects as the state claimed in court, said Brown, but it would lead to increased scrutiny on projects that can do a lot of harm.

Right now, the permitting process has a one-size-fits-all approach that poorly addresses the threats to Alaska’s anadromous streams and rivers.

Case hinged on the constitutional rights of Alaskans

Trustees filed the lawsuit after Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott rejected the ballot measure in September. The state argued that the initiative would effectively remove the legislature’s discretion over allocations. It argued, in essence, that Alaska citizens cannot put a thumb on the scale of how state assets—in this case water—are used.

Trustees argued that though the initiative sets guidelines, it provides appropriate discretion to the Department of Fish and Game for determining what the specifics of protections and mitigation should look like.

In addition to giving people a voice in the protection of salmon habitat, this case is also important in clarifying that the power of the initiative, the people’s right to make law directly.  “The Lt. Governor’s denial of certification was too broad and would have restricted the right to initiative if Stand for Salmon had not successfully challenged it,” said Brown.