Court holds up Bristol Bay initiative
February 13th, 2015 | Carey Restino
An initiative passed by voters last fall directing any mining in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve to require legislative approval was upheld in a decision last month by the Alaska Supreme Court.
In the Jan. 30 ruling, the courts elaborated on an earlier ruling last June that allowed the initiative on the ballot. At that time, the courts issued a hasty ruling due to the timing of the pending election. The Bristol Bay Forever Initiative, which was passed by more than 65 percent of Alaska's voters in November, did not violate the Alaska constitution's anti-appropriation clause, as argued by mining industry groups the Alaska Miners Association and the Council for Alaska Producers.
Those contesting the initiative argued that the initiative "would set aside the entire Bristol Bay Watershed for the purpose of propagating salmon" and "would immediately ban new large-scale hardrock mining in this vast area without any further legislative action."
The court ruled, however, that requiring the Legislature to have the final say does not allocate resources, but rather regulates them, as the initiative sponsors and the state argued.
The initiative was also challenged on the grounds that it focused on a specific region — statewide initiatives are not allowed to enact local legislation. The courts ruled in favor of the initiative in that arena as well, saying that the argument by initiative sponsors that the Bristol Bay wild salmon run was a resource of statewide importance was valid.
"The record in this case also indisputably establishes that the Bristol Bay watershed has unique ecological, geographic, and economic characteristics; that the fishery has significant statewide importance; and that metallic sulfide mining poses potential water quality risks," wrote Justice Craig Stowers in the ruling. "For example, the initiative sponsors provided a report extensively documenting the economic importance of the Bristol Bay salmon industry, which concluded that Bristol Bay has the world's most valuable wild salmon fishery. The initiative sponsors also provided a report discussing the potentially significant impacts of a proposed large-sale mining project on the Bristol Bay wild salmon ecosystem."
The court disagreed with arguments by the initiative opposition that aimed to diminish the importance of the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery in relation to other fisheries, and noting that many of the permit holders fishing the region were not Alaskans.
"We conclude that Bristol Bay's unique and significant biological and economic characteristics are of great interest not just to the Bristol Bay region but to the state as a whole," Stowers wrote. "We also conclude that (the initiative's) purpose — to protect 'Bristol Bay wild salmon and waters' — is legitimate."
While the initiative may have moved forward, other legal questions still remain pertaining to the proposed Pebble Mine, which has drawn statewide and international debate due to its location in the Bristol Bay watershed.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year moved forward with a review of potential restrictions to large-scale mining in the region after several years of study and numerous comment periods.
But Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. — which is the sole owner of the Pebble Limited Partnership at this time — won an injunction against any action by the EPA until courts had a chance to consider allegations that the EPA and others conspired to stop the mine.
However, proponents of the initiative called the Supreme Court ruling a success.
"The decision by the Alaska Supreme Court to uphold the Bristol Bay Forever Initiative is monumental for all Alaskans," said Anders Gustafson, executive director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, a nonprofit coalition focused on preserving and protecting Alaska's hunting and fishing resources. "This thoughtful, articulate decision only reiterates how a majority of Alaskans feel about Bristol Bay and its precious salmon."