The death knell of the Alaska Coastal Management program can be heard in state offices. The reason: the Legislature’s refusal to renew the federally-funded program, which is set to expire on midnight June 30.
The Department of Natural Resources, which manages the program, has begun to phase it out.
DNR says it will eliminate about 30 positions in Anchorage and Juneau. Some of those were already vacant, and some employees have been transferred to other departments, which leaves about 20 employees in search of new jobs.
Elsewhere across the state, up to another 50 jobs may disappear, according to DNR. These workers are based in coastal communities and are hired by local agencies, who are scrambling to find money to save these positions. Their main role is to track local development and minimize potential harm.
The Legislature tried to restructure the program during a special session last month but couldn’t agree on how to do it -- so unless lawmakers or Gov. Sean Parnell call another special session before the end of June and pass a bill to renew the program, it will die.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) says when that happens, Alaska will be the first state ever to do away with its coastal management program.
Wielechowski says the federal program was set up in 1972, to allow coastal states to have greater input on how their coastlines were developed. Alaska opted into the program in 1979.
“The second thing it does is, it helps developers because it provides a streamlined process," Wielechowski said. "Many times a developer has to deal with dozens of agencies and dozens of permits in order to get a project done.”
Now, says Wielechowski, developers will have to go through a “patchwork process.”
The federal government provided the state with about $3 million a year to run the program. It also enabled the state to tap into other sources of federal money.
“So that part of the state budget is in essence going to zero,” said Joe Balash, a deputy director for DNR.
Balash says, even though the Legislature still has time to call a special session, it’s probably too late to salvage the program, because the quality of the program has already been impacted.
“If you imagine you’re driving down the highway at 65 miles per hour, and you throw your car into reverse, and you put it back into gear and drive forward again, something is not going to work,” Balash said. “We’re losing critical pieces here, and that’s the staff.”
Some of those who work in the Alaska Coastal Management Program have years of experience, navigating complicated issues. Soon these staffers will be gone, and their work will be parceled out to different departments. Balash doesn’t expect too many problems in the immediate future, because most of the Alaska’s proposed offshore oil and gas projects have gone through the ACMP process and meet state requirements.
“The State of Alaska has higher standards for oil and gas spill prevention and response activities,” said Balash. “It is through the ACMP that we can attach requirements for operators to reach higher standards.”
But Balash does worry about the long term outlook.
“That’s something we are going to wrestle with in the future," Balash said. "In terms of a tool that the state has in its box, we are going to lose that opportunity to add conditions to federal permits.”
One of the ironies is that most lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as the governor, supported some form of the program and efforts to strengthen it. In a rare move, the House voted unanimously for its coastal zone management bill. The Senate added more conditions that the House accepted.
In the end, however, the process fell apart. The major stumbling block: a provision to allow local knowledge to be considered alongside scientific evidence. Lawmakers could not agree on how much weight local knowledge should have, as some fear that language in the bill could be used to block development.
Balash says the administration shares the same concern.