In a state where fishing and hunting are a way of life, it's no surprise that the issue is packing a punch in the Alaska Senate race, a high-profile race in which incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is seeking a second term.
Put Alaska First -- a political action committee funded by the Senate Majority PAC, which has close ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- released a television ad blasting Republican candidate Dan Sullivan for his involvement in crafting a controversial state bill that, according to the ad, would affect Alaskans’ input on fishing and hunting policy.
The ad features Sam Cotten, a resident of Eagle River, Alaska, and a former state senator, saying, "The fishing industry is part of who we are here in Alaska. When decisions are being made about where we can hunt, where we can fish, Alaskan voices shouldn't be taken out of the picture."
The ad then cuts to a narrator, who says, "But it was Dan Sullivan who wrote the bill to cut Alaskans out of those decisions."
We wondered whether Sullivan, one of two leading candidates in the GOP primary, had really made that kind of power grab, so we took a closer look.
Who’s behind the bill?
The claim stems from a piece of controversial legislation presented to the Alaska State Legislature in January 2013.
House Bill 77, supported by the state Department of Natural Resources, aimed to improve and speed up the process for approving land and water-use permits.
Most of the public outcry focused on a provision in the original draft that would in some cases have allowed the DNR to award general-use permits without giving the public the opportunity to review or comment on the proposals. The bill also took away the right of tribes, groups and individuals to secure in-stream fishing areas that were protected from mining and other development projects.
The bill's main critics were fishers, tribal groups, conservation groups and people who felt the DNR was taking power away from individuals. Hundreds of people signed up to offer public testimony against the legislation, and few stood up to support it.
When the bill was introduced, Sullivan was the Commissioner of Natural Resources, and by most accounts, he was deeply involved in the overarching effort to overhaul the permitting system and reduce backlogs.
"Whether he personally penned any part of the bill is uncertain, but he definitely had some influence," said Carl Shepro, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Alaska. "That lends some credence to the statement" in the ad, he said.
Throughout his tenure as commissioner, which ended in the fall of 2013, Sullivan defended the DNR’s efforts to change with the permitting system.
"I led that effort, and I’m proud of that effort," Sullivan said in an interview with Radio Kenai in March 2014, referring to his overall strategy to overhaul the permitting system.
But the bill's language was broad, so critics were worried that the DNR could potentially permit large-scale and high-impact projects -- such as mining -- without public input.
That, in turn, could have handed the commissioner -- Sullivan, at the time -- significantly more power.
However, the ad glosses over a few nuances.
First, the ad doesn’t note that the bill failed to make it through the Alaska Legislature in 2013, largely due to public opposition, and again in 2014.
Second, the ad’s wording suggests that Sullivan’s sole intent was to cut out public discussion of permitting decisions, when in fact that was a byproduct of a broader effort to improve the permitting process. The idea of the original bill was that the commissioner should be able to issue a permit for small-scale proposals -- such as allowing someone to dock their boat near their waterfront property -- without notifying the public.
And third, the ad may have exaggerated the potential impact of the measure, implying that the bill would have kept Alaskans out of discussions regarding hunting, rather than just fishing.
Some HB 77 critics have said the broad language would have allowed it to affect hunting, because land access plays a big role in hunting, Shepro said. If the DNR limited land use through the authority granted under HB 77’s original draft, the department could have restricted hunting without having to go through public review processes.
Still, this is speculative. The bill’s text does not make any reference to hunting or game activity. And judging by what the law’s critics complained about, the main concerns centered on fishing, not hunting.
The Sullivan campaign said the law would not affect the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s regulatory authority over hunting.
But the ad’s creators thought the bill’s language created a slippery slope.
"If you are a hunter, and you hunt a popular state-owned tract of land, the commissioner can hand that land over to a developer without a public hearing and without adhering to existing laws and (regulations), under HB 77," said Jim Lottsfeldt, Put Alaska First senior adviser.
Put Alaska First PAC said in a television ad that Sullivan "wrote a bill to cut Alaskans out of" decisions about where citizens can hunt and fish. As commissioner of natural resources, Sullivan did indeed push legislation to limit the public's ability to review and comment on development proposals.
However, the ad glosses over a few complicating issues, including the stated goal of the proposal, and suggests, rather speculatively, that hunters could be affected. The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, so we rate this claim Half True.