The Chilkat River. (Abbey Collins)

The Chilkat River. (Abbey Collins)

The Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Board took a stance on a controversial water protection process this week. The board approved a letter in support of giving decision-making power on Outstanding National Resource Water designations to a state agency instead of the legislature. The letter says decisions should be based on science, not subject to politics.

The Chilkat River is one of four water bodies nominated for Outstanding Resource, or Tier 3 protection. It’s the highest protection under federal law and prohibits activity that would degrade water quality, unless it’s limited and temporary.

The Chilkat Indian Village nominated the river. But nothing can happen with nominations yet. First, the state needs to put a procedure in place to evaluate whether a water body qualifies for the top protection.

Gov. Bill Walker introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would give that authority to lawmakers. But much of the public reaction to those bills was negative. People said it would ‘politicize’ what is should be a scientific decision.

In April, Walker asked to withdraw the bills from consideration in the legislature. He told KHNS at the time that he wanted to work toward a more ‘broadly acceptable’ proposal.

“It became evident to us that we had not spent enough time with various constituent groups in preparation for this,” Walker said. “We thought we were creating a more public process, obviously either we weren’t or a lot of folks felt we were not doing it the correct way so we said well let’s push the reset button and start this process over again.”

Walker’s office says he will likely revisit the issue once the current special session ends.

Now the local Fish and Game advisory committee is weighing in on how they think the procedure for designating Outstanding Resource waters should work. The group isn’t saying whether it supports the protection for the Chilkat River. But it does agree that the decision should be scientific, not political.

“Decisions regarding nominations and designation [should] be made by the appropriate state agencies based upon science rather than a political body such as the legislature,” Chair Tim McDonough read out loud from the letter at a recent meeting.

The letter does not name which state agency should make the decision. Public commenters during legislative committee hearings suggested the Department of Environment Conservation, with input from Fish and Game and the Department of Natural Resources.

“We would hope to see actions affecting the health and welfare of fish and game populations be driven by the principles of sustainability, based upon empirical science, and kept from the political arena where oftentimes the interests of fish and game resources take a back seat to political expediency,” McDonough read from the letter.

The committee unanimously approved the letter, which will be sent to Gov. Walker and the leaders of the House and Senate.