Alaska's beluga whales case hurt by loss of coast zone program

The Anchorage Daily NewsOctober 31, 2011 

Back in February, the Parnell administration told a judge that Cook Inlet beluga whales didn't need the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act because the state was perfectly capable of protecting them itself, in part because of the Alaska Coastal Management Program.

But in a notice belatedly filed in the case Friday, the Alaska attorney general's office acknowledged the state had lost that conservation and enforcement tool four months ago. The program expired July 1 when the Alaska Legislature failed to renew it this year, first in its regular session and then in two special sessions.

The February assertion and Friday's notice were made in a lawsuit brought by the state in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking to overturn a federal agency's listing of belugas as endangered. The challenge, one of many pursued by Gov. Sean Parnell over environmental decisions by the federal government, sought to forestall potential restrictions on oil drilling and other development in Cook Inlet.

When the Legislature was meeting in Juneau earlier this year, Parnell was lukewarm to renewing the coastal zone management program, saying some versions in the Legislature would have set back development by giving too much power to local communities. When the program expired, Attorney General John Burns said the state had many other tools to influence federal decision making.

But advocates of the program, like Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, say the governor was shortsighted in not pushing harder to get the renewal enacted.

"It's a real irony for him to not care about it, given how much he's fighting the federal government, because it's our only way to have an absolute seat at the table, an absolute right to have our voice heard," said Kerttula, who for five years was the state program's attorney.

Two weeks ago, elected officials from Juneau, Kenai and Kodiak announced a drive to establish a new coastal-zone management program through a ballot initiative if the Legislature fails to enact it next year.

"By allowing the program to expire Alaska has lost one very effective tool in helping to shape what happens on federal land and offshore under federal management," one of those officials, Juneau Mayor and former Alaska attorney general Bruce Botelho, said in an interview Sunday. "The Coastal Zone Management Act is actually the only federal law that requires the federal government to submit to local review and state review of land activities."

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