By Rhonda McBride

1:07 PM December 12, 2013

House Bill 77 was fast-tracked through the House last year, but stalled during the final days of the legislative session.

ANCHORAGE – The start of the next session of the state legislature is more than a month away, but the political fireworks over a natural resources bill are already flaring up.

House Bill 77 was fast-tracked through the House last year, but stalled during the final days of the session. Wednesday night, it was clear the debate over bill is far from dead.

More than 100 people crowded into a Downtown Anchorage meeting room to weigh in on HB 77. Some had to be turned away out of fear the room was over capacity and would violate fire codes.

Their main objection to HB 77: The measure’s impact on the public’s right to have a say in development and how much authority it would give the Department of Natural Resources.

“If you look at it real close like many people have, you can see it’s almost a communistic way of thinking,” said Ron Burnett with the Chuitna Citizens Coalition. “Now they’re going to take all the rights that we had, and they’re going to take them away from everybody until our government can say ‘no.’”

The bill is wide-ranging and addresses almost every facet of state land use, but what critics seem to object to the most is the bill’s impact on water use permits and water rights.

Under HB 77, only government agencies would be able to apply for water rights. The practice of allowing individuals, tribes and nonprofits to file would come to an end. Critics fear citizens would no longer be able to protect waterways near development and make sure nearby rivers and streams have an adequate flow of water.

Opponents believe the measure would also give state resource managers more authority to extend temporary water use permits — which they say would bypass the public process and make developers less accountable.

A number of Alaska Natives traveled from outside Anchorage, from places as far away as Bristol Bay and Glennallen, to protest the legislation. Their message: HB 77 could hurt fish, wildlife and subsistence.

“This bill removes the public’s right to provide comments on land use decisions that can change our lives forever,” said Peter Christopher, who represented the New Stuyahok Native Corporation.

The bill has been dubbed by some opponents as the “Silencing Alaskans Act.”

One of the organizers of the Anchorage meeting, Lindsey Bloom, who fishes commercially in Bristol Bay and Southeast Alaska, believes HB 77 potentially affects all Alaskans.

“I think everyone in the state who ever goes on state land should care about their right to public notice, their right to have standing, and their right to apply for reservations of water in salmon streams,” Bloom said.

Tom Crafford, who is director of the DNR’s Office of Project Management and Permitting, believes critics have exaggerated HB 77’s impact on the public process but also acknowledges that the public’s role will change.

“We think the bill strikes a more appropriate balance between public participation and permitting efficiency,” Crafford said. “Ultimately, if the public is asked to comment on everything that DNR does, then we’re totally consumed with the public process and very little gets done.”

The bill’s supporters believe it will streamline the permitting process and help to promote development.

Sen. Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, likes to think of himself as a strong supporter of development, but he opposed HB 77 during the last session.

He had hoped DNR would hold a series of public hearings across the state, but when the agency didn’t, he decided to hold his own meetings in Homer and Soldotna this week to give people in his district a voice.

Micciche said his hearings were not connected to the Anchorage meeting on Tuesday night, but they were also heavily attended with overwhelming opposition to HB 77.

The Soldotna meeting on Monday drew a crowd of more than a 100. Micciche said he knew almost everyone in the room.

“If you think about who came to the meeting — oil field workers and miners and commercial fishermen — they typically lean a little bit more to the right,” Micciche said. “And they’re concerned about some of the aspects of HB 77.”

Micciche said the Homer meeting on Tuesday lasted for four hours, and he was impressed with the thoughtful comments he heard. Micciche hopes that HB 77 can be improved upon in the next session, to give the public more protections, while at the same time providing DNR with more tools to do its job.

The passage of the bill is one of Gov. Sean Parnell’s top priorities.