As the expiration date for Alaska’s Coastal Management program approaches, Senate and House leaders say they made progress Tuesday in efforts to save the program.
Although they did not make plans for a special session, Senate President Gary Stevens called the meeting productive and says there’s a commitment to keep the lines of communication open on a daily basis.
House Speaker Mike Chenault says both sides will continue working on the language of a bill in hopes of finding common ground.
Up until now, the two legislative bodies have been at a stalemate.
The Coastal Management Program, which is funded by the federal government, is set to expire on June 30. Supporters say, without it, Alaskans will lose an important voice in coastal development.
The Senate recently pushed a plan to extend the current program by one year, but lacked enough support from the House to call a special session.
House leaders still want to return to an earlier version of a bill, before it underwent changes in a Senate and House conference committee.
Rep. Mike Hawker, (R-Anchorage), said the Senate did not appreciate how the bill, which included five Senate amendments, achieved some delicate compromises between coastal communities, the governor and the oil and gas industry.
“It was balanced on the head of a pin,” said Hawker. “You’ve got a bill that’s crafted so carefully, one little bit of weight on any corner of it, and the whole thing tips over.”
One of the major tipping points: local knowledge and how much weight it should carry in the permitting process.
The bill, favored by a majority of House members, does take local knowledge into consideration. But the version preferred by the Senate, gives it more teeth.
“I’m not looking for veto power,” says Sen. Donny Olson, (D-Golovin). “I’m looking for a place people can air their concerns, because long after oil leaves this area, there are going to be people around, and they’re going to ask us why we didn’t try to protect the area.”
Olson's District T takes in the North Slope, one of the regions seeking a stronger voice in offshore development.
Hawker believes the Senate’s temporary solution, to extend the program by one year, would only cause more problems.
“It would throw it completely into next year’s volatile political arena,” said Hawker.
He also says the bill the House wants is an improvement on the current program.
“The accord does respect local knowledge,” says Hawker. “In fact, it codifies the existence and the respect for local knowledge.”
Olson says he’s willing to take a second look at the House bill, but says he worries that the language, in its current form, would make it too easy to dismiss legitimate local concerns. He says there is case in one coastal community, where scientists studied an area, and determined there were no walrus. As it turned out, Olson says, they did their census at the wrong time of the year.
“Unfortunately, politics is one of those things that has entered the picture,” said Olson. “Right or wrong, we should be above that, because we’re dealing with issues that are going be affecting the economy of the state of Alaska.”
There may already be one economic impact. The Great Land Trust may lose out on a one million federal dollar grant.
The trust applied for the funds to buy environmentally sensitive land in the Campbell Creek Estuary in South Anchorage. So far, it has raised six million of the total seven million dollar project.
“These funds are not available to a state that does not have a coastal management plan in place,” said Phil Shephard, director of the Great Land Trust. “That’s a big disappointment. We’ve worked hard for three years to get those dollars. They are really critical.”
Shephard says if grant falls through, it’ll be very difficult to make up the difference. He also says other programs that restore coastal areas in Alaska could lose millions of dollars, if the Coastal Management Program goes away.
While the methods of shaping the program differ, many lawmakers seem to agree that it is worth saving.
“Unfortunately,” says Rep. Hawker, “it’s one of those things where people have to set aside ego right now, have to set aside water under the bridge, take a look at what is the right thing to do, and simply do it.”
And while that’s a tall order in politics, even in the best of times, Hawker remains hopeful.
“In Alaska’s political world, anything is possible,” Hawker said.
Contact Rhonda McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org