By Tim Troll
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the commissioner may authorize an activity on state land by the issuance of a general permit if the commissioner finds that the activity is unlikely to result in significant and irreparable harm to state land or resources.”
The language above is the lead statement of a bill introduced by the Governor and Natural Resources Commissioner to “streamline” Alaska’s permitting process. That Bill is HB 77. It passed the House and in a feat of cleaver political chicanery it passed out of Senate Finance despite overwhelming public testimony from around the state opposing it.
Though the bill didn’t pass this year, it can come up next year and constituents need to be ready.
It shows our Legislature is poised to turn over control of Alaska’s natural wealth to the virtually unfettered discretion of one man who is free to act “notwithstanding” any law the legislature may have enacted in the past to protect our natural resources.
I don’t ask this lightly, but are we Alaskans really prepared to invest so much trust in one person? I certainly am not. Let’s look at this language in the context of Alaska history and a huge mistake we almost made just after statehood allowing the thermonuclear excavation of a harbor near Point Hope. This story unfolds in Dan O’Neill’s excellent account “The Firecracker Boys.”
In January of 1958 Edward Teller, father of the thermonuclear bomb, arrived in Juneau to pitch Project Chariot – his idea of igniting several massive warheads on the North Slope to demonstrate the peaceful use of these cold war weapons. Teller came promoting his stature as a brilliant scientist and promising jobs and bucket loads of federal cash. He received a warm welcome from many trusting Alaskans who liked his economic development pitch.
Fortunately, as a result of some courageous scientists and unexpected resistance from the Native village of Point Hope, common sense prevailed. We were spared a catastrophe, but no thanks to our government landowners who were prepared to issue the necessary permits.
Now imagine that the language above from HB 77 is all that stands between an Edward Teller today and a thermonuclear hole on state land. Teller could make a persuasive case to our commissioner that a nuclear explosion is “unlikely to result in significant harm” because the area is remote and affects only a fraction of state land.
Even if the explosion caused significant harm, he could argue the harm is not “irreparable” because over millennia the land will heal itself.
And what about harm to potentially displaced people? Well, as Teller said in 1958, they could work in the mines that could be developed as a result of the explosions.
I admit this may be a bit farfetched in the Alaska of 2013. But consider that this scenario almost happened during the lifetime of many Alaskans living today.
The lessons we learned from that experience nearly 60 years ago led to the words we Alaskans’ use in many of our laws today to prevent man-made natural disasters. Words that require public notice. Words that require public input. Words that require scientific rigor. Words that require a careful permitting process. Words that require our state officials to exercise common sense.
In the end, all we have to save us are the words in our laws and our willingness to abide by them. In one sentence, HB 77 could silence many of these words. We do not know which statutes and which regulations will effectively be nullified by HB 77.
I urge our legislators to back away from this precipice. Too much is at stake to give such a serious matter so little consideration.
Tim Troll is a 35-year resident of Alaska. He is an attorney, author and executive director of the Nushagak-Mulchatna/Wood-Tikchik Land Trust.
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