A citizen-lead ballot initiative cleared a major legal hurdle Monday. A superior court ruled in favor of a ballot initiative by Stand for Salmon to create or tighten existing laws around resource extraction in the state.

Last month, Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott rejected the measure, which he called unconstitutional on the grounds that it limited the legislature's power to appropriate waters. But the superior court disagreed.

Stand for Salmon's initiative calls for stricter regulations on resource development, which include:

  • Defining what makes a healthy salmon habitat.
  • Drafting more stringent development standards.
  • Expanding the list of protected salmon-bearing waters.
  • Requiring public notification and input on all projects that could impact wild salmon.

Alaska's current laws around resource extraction date back to statehood, and require the Department of Fish and Game to approve any proposal near salmon streams unless the plans are insufficient for the proper protection of fish and wildlife. Proponents of Stand for Salmon say that language is too vague.

"The ballot initiative is an attempt to allow the voters to decide if we should update existing law on how to protect salmon in salmon streams," said Valerie Brown of Trustees for Alaska, who represented Stand for Salmon in the legal proceedings. "So, if they are able to collect all the signatures, it will go forward and people will get to vote on whether we should have a public process when large projects are permitted."

But the Resource Development Council for Alaska says the state already has a cumbersome process for permitting.

"We feel that this initiative is looking for a problem. Where it doesn’t exist. This is going to cause delays and maybe even halt projects, not only in resource development, responsible resource development but also community development," said Marleanna Hall, a spokesperson for the RDC. "Alaska’s permitting process for many projects requires around 60 permits to see a project move forward. There’s many opportunities in that process for the public to comment, to weigh their concerns, to share why they may or may not support a project."

Monday's ruling means the Stand for Salmon can start collecting signatures. It needs 32,000 by January in order to get on the ballot next year.

In a statement Monday afternoon, the Alaska Department of Law said it is still weighing whether to appeal the ruling:

"The State is currently evaluating Judge Rindner’s decision. Clearly, we disagree with the court’s legal conclusion that the measure is a constitutional use of the initiative, for all of the reasons we stated in our briefs to the superior court on this issue (the only issue in the case). Whether to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court includes an evaluation process that will take several weeks to complete, and that process is underway."

"In the meantime, we are complying with the superior court’s order and working on printing petition booklets for circulation as quickly as possible. The State and the sponsors have been working cooperatively and amicably throughout the litigation to make sure that petition booklets were ready to go should the court issue the decision that it did today,” said Libby Bakalar, the Assistant Attorney General representing the state.

If approved, the Stand for Salmon initiative would not apply to projects that have already received permits from the Department of Fish and Game.