Alaska’s salmon habitat protection laws have not been updated in 60 years, since statehood.  Last week nearly 42,000 signatures were verified by the state Division of Elections from all 40 voting districts to put the question to voters.

It was the first time in 15 years that a ballot initiative surpassed the minimum number of signatures required in every district.

But the measure has some hurdles before it goes to the voters. An April 26th hearing before the Alaska Supreme Court will decide if the initiative is constitutional.

 “We are extremely confident that the court is going to side with us and move this to a vote of the people.”

Ryan Schryver is director of the Stand for Salmon campaign.  The grassroots group is not limiting its options. A House bill that would update habitat rules also is before the Alaska legislature.

“We are pursuing legislation. But we are not putting all our eggs in the legislative basket. Juneau has not proven to be an effective place for policy change to happen so we are going to continue to pursue the ballot initiative option.”

If it passes the court, and if the legislature ends its session on time, the issue could be decided by the August primary. By law, 120 days must pass between the session end and the ballot box.

If not, it will move to the November general election.

Deep pocketed opponents are pulling out all stops to oppose updating the habitat laws. The group Stand for Alaska, for example, claims the initiative would overhaul regulations affecting any type of project and poses a threat to the Alaska way of life.

Ryan Schryver disagrees –

“The opponents of the initiative are huge corporate entities, Outside mining interests that are willing to say and do anything to try and confuse Alaskans about this initiative.”

Ballot backer Stephanie Quinn-Davidson is a former state fisheries biologist and now director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

“The one thing I really try to point out to people who are going to extremes and saying that this is going to shut down all development or this is going to make it so you can’t put a dock by your cabin at the lake, there is language in the initiative that says it has to have significant and adverse impacts to salmon habitat for it to qualify for that major permitting process. 

  “I feel that folks are missing that. It is significant and adverse, and a dock in a lake is not a significant and adverse impact to salmon habitat.”

Meanwhile, Schryver says salmon habitat proponents will continue to take their message on the road.

“Right now we are focusing on getting out there and talking to Alaskans about the importance of standing up for this amazing resource. We know that the opponents are going to be spending millions of dollars trying to confuse people about what this initiative does so we are pushing back with Alaskans talking to Alaskans about how we need to act now and vote yes for salmon.”