Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vocal crowd belabors beluga

To a crowd of nodding heads that offered periodic interjections of "Amen," Rep. Don Young said what was on his mind Monday regarding beluga whales."The designation of beluga whale critical habitat is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen under the Endangered Species Act," Young told the audience. "We need to start standing up to the federal government."Young was the first of five speakers invited to a town hall meeting the Conservative Patriots Group hosted for about 100 attendees regarding the pending designation of critical habitat for the Cook Inlet belugas. It's a species the federal government has already listed as endangered. The law requires that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designate what habitat is critical to maintaining endangered species. Jennie Bettine, said her group is working to oppose the habitat designation."CPG believes that this is bad science, just as climate change has been proven to be bad science," she said.The move has many in Alaska worried. One of Young's colleagues on the dais, Arne Fuglvog of Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office, summed up those fears: The permitting process for projects on the Inlet will be made more complex and more costly. Designating habitat opens the door to lawsuits with the potential to not just slow those projects down, but to kill them outright. And the burden of proof is on the developer or government body that's being sued."You have to prove that you are not jeopardizing critical habitat," Fuglvog said. He pointed out that the other side in the debate, the side hoping to see the beluga get its critical habitat, has pointed to a number of commercial and recreational activities — everything from dumping effluent into the Inlet to small boats and jet skis — that it fears is harming the whales.Which, he said, will almost certainly lead to "very targeted environmental litigation."Fuglvog said he could almost guarantee the project to mine coal in Chuitna would be the first project targeted.Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright, in his remarks, talked mostly about uncertainty. He said the Inlet is most definitely changing. It changed drastically after the 1964 earthquake, he pointed out. Some would like to believe that humans have caused the beluga's population to decline, but nobody can prove that they did, the mayor said.Echoing a comment Young made earlier in the night, he pointed out that there are fewer fish in the Inlet and that belugas eat fish. It stands to reason, Rupright said, that the whale population would then taper off to reach an equilibrium."So what's next? Are we going to say the salmon have to be protected so the beluga can eat them?"The final speaker in the program, former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom, also spoke of that uncertainty. He said he looked at federal data and found that belugas declined between 1994 and 2000. Since then, he said, the population has stabilized, and maybe even seen a very slight rebound.So what happened in those six years of decline? The Port of Anchorage increased the tonnage of cargo that crossed its docks, Mystrom said. The oil platforms in the Inlet experienced no increase in activity.The only thing he could think of, Mystrom joked, was that he was mayor at the time. And so he promised to write a letter to the feds saying, "I promise I won't run for mayor of Anchorage again."But he said the critical habitat designation is an overreaction."The huge amount of reaction for something that we're not sure what caused it, that's not realistic," he said.So what can activists like the CPG do? Every speaker told the audience to submit comments on the issue. NOAA is accepting comments until March 3. But when the audience got its chance to ask questions, the first asked how big of an impact those comments will have."If I were to say it had a lot of weight I would be misleading you," Young said. He hoped that the regulators would listen to Alaskans, he said, but, "I'm not totally optimistic that's going to happen."

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