Effort to revive parts of controversial permitting bill scrapped

Rep. Cathy Munoz addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, Feb. 14, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Rep. Cathy Munoz addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, Feb. 14, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

An effort to resurrect parts of a dead permitting bill was abandoned on Friday night.

Officials from the Department of Natural Resources had been working with Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a Juneau Republican, to attach land exchange language from House Bill 77 to a separate bill concerning land sales.

The exchange provision would have allowed the DNR to trade state land for private land, as long as the properties were of equal value or DNR determined the exchange was in the state’s best interest.

The Department of Natural Resources pitched it as an uncontroversial part of a very controversial and recently abandoned bill. When HB 77 was under consideration, the land exchange portion got scant attention compared to sections on water reservations, appeals, and general permits. But environmental advocates have now objected to the land exchange language, arguing that it removed public notice provisions and could allow for sweetheart deals for development projects.

“Rather than short-cutting the process, we should take care whenever public lands and resources are being traded away to a private entity,” says Lisa Weissler, a former assistant attorney general who opposes the language.

Rep. Muñoz had intended to offer land exchange language amendment to Senate Bill 106 either in a procedural committee or on the House floor. But when SB 106 came for a final vote on a Friday night, no amendment was offered.

Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash says the amendment was scrapped because of the immediate pushback.

“We were not going to ask anyone to take heat to do this, and there was a little bit of a heat generated by certain groups. So, no harm, no foul,” says Balash. “Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity in the future to look at some of these things, and specifically the land exchange piece, in a cooler time.”

Balash expects the language to come back next year in a standalone bill.