Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to show that the land exchange between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Cook Inlet Region, Inc. has not been finalized.
Alaska’s two senators and lone congressman have been busy in the past year.
Since President Donald Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017, Washington, D.C. has been in upheaval as new department heads have come and gone and policy changes have flooded Congress. Some of those policies have hit logjams, but for the Alaska delegation, it’s been a productive administration so far.
Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans, have also taken on several high-profile roles in Congress in the past year. Young, now the longest-serving member of Congress after the resignation of Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) in December 2017, has been designated Dean of the House, a ceremonial role with the unofficial job of upholding institutional memory and traditions in the House of Representatives. Murkowski chairs the Senate’s prominent committee on energy issues, and Sullivan is leading the charge on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and an effort to trim back infrastructure permitting in the country.
Young could not be reached for an interview. In interviews this spring, Sullivan and Murkowski shared a number of policy goals and their optimism for the coming year.
Chief among the list of accomplishments for the Alaska delegation in 2017 was a clause opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. The opening, included in a rider in the Republican omnibus tax reform bill passed at the end of the year, realized a 40-year wishlist item for the Alaska delegation. It doesn’t mean that oil companies will be drilling for crude in the refuge tomorrow — multiple environmental groups have promised legal action over the opening — but it’s a promising step.
“(The support for ANWR exploration) to me is pretty consistent over the last 40 years,” Sullivan said. “With regards to responsible resource development, I haven’t seen too much of a shift. I think you always need to emphasize that it’s an all of the above strategy for Alaska. We have abundant oil resources, but we also have vast renewable resources … we truly epitomize the all of the above energy, which helps drive economies, which helps create good jobs.”
Many of the Alaska delegation’s federal level fights involve opening public lands to resource development. Another longstanding wishlist item was the permit to cross the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge with a gravel road to connect the community of King Cove to the community of Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport. The road had long been controversial because the refuge is vital habitat for birds as well as set a precedent for exceptions to federally designated wildlife habitat areas.
Murkowski said she knew the opposition to both the King Cove road and to opening ANWR were not entirely about the individual items.
“So much of it comes down to access to our resources, and ANWR really epitomized that,” she said. “…The symbolism of it is if you can’t gain access … we don’t have much as a state.”
U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been an ally for the Alaska delegation, working with them on a variety of issues related to resource management and land access. Another major logjam item that has seen recent motion is the federal approval process for the Cooper Landing Bypass, officially known as the Sterling Highway Milepost 45–60 Reroute Project. Begun more than 40 years ago with no dirt moved, the project is the oldest EIS on the federal books and has been repeatedly stalled because of federal land issues, protections for the Kenai River and expense.
With pressure from the Alaska delegation and Gov. Bill Walker, Zinke and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao initiated a reconsideration of a controversial southern route, signed the papers to pursue a land exchange between the Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Native corporation Cook Inlet Region, Inc. — an important piece of the road’s northern route, which was identified as preferred by multiple Kenai Peninsula governments and organizations as well as the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities — and recently released the final draft EIS for public review.
Murkowski chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and serves on a number of other committtees, including the Committee on Appropriations, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the Committee on Indian Affairs. Sullivan serves on the Senate committees on Armed Services, Commerce, Science and Transportation, Environmental and Public Works and Veterans Affairs.
Within her committees, Murkowski drew broad attention twice in 2017 when calls flooded her offices over the proposed appointment of now-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and when she was one of only three Republicans in the Senate who voted against a proposed health care reform bill that would have stripped out many of the reforms included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010.
Though Sullivan doesn’t chair the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, he’s taken the helm on field hearings and the process of reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the federal law governing fisheries in waters between 3 and 200 nautical miles offshore. That’s led him to many communities around the nation, including Alaska, where he held a field hearing in Soldotna in August 2017.
So far, part of what he’s heard is that much of the act is working but some provisions need revisiting, he said.
“You want to try and juggle the concerns of all of my constituents, certainly,” he said. “Sometimes those are competing concerns and interests, and then you try to getto the point on constructive compromise … We are bringing in the sport community and the recreational community in significant ways that really wasn’t the case and wasn’t the focus when the bill was originally (enacted).”
Both are already preoccupied with coming business. Murkowski has been chipping away at a comprehensive energy bill for several years, focused on improving energy infrastructure and supply as well as a host of other energy reforms. She and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) introduced the most recent version in June 2017 but it has not progressed past committee since. She said she hopes to move it back onto the Senate floor after this spring’s budget tango.
Sullivan, who served in the Marine Corps before returning to public service in Alaska and then running for Senate, is targeting a number of military issues for the upcoming year, including the Trump administration’s targeted increase in defense spending. He’s also focused on a bill to streamline infrastructure permitting, an issue he’s been focused on throughout his first term. He’s working on a bill, called the “Rebuild America Now Act,” that would reform infrastructure permitting to speed some projects through the process.
“Yes, we want a strong economy, yes we want roads and bridges and pipelines, and yet if you look at how long it takes to permit a bridge or the Sterling Highway, it takes years, it takes decades,” he said. “This is hurting our nation, this is hurting our ability to compete economically, this is certainly hurting our ability to create good jobs.
They do approach the administration differently. Murkowski has been outspoken in her criticism of Trump, especially his tendency to announce policy decisions through Twitter, and said she had no plans to change that. Trump specifically called her out for going against the Republican paryt with her vote on the GOP health care bill, but she said the health care issue was “too important” for Alaskans to earn her vote. She said she will continue to vote by her conscience, whether or not she earns a scolding from the president.
“On the policy front, we’ve made more headway this year than we have in the past decade,” she said. “Does that mean I agree with everything Donald Trump thinks, says or does? No.”
However, they both emphasized the possibilities for resource development under the current administration, saying they were looking at possibilities of transferring part of the Tongass National Forest to the state for management and reviving the timber industry in Southeast. Sullivan said that though things look chaotic from the day-to-day on Capitol Hill, there’s bipartisan work getting done very effectively.
“One of the things in my three years here that I’ve noticed is that for people who follow daily headlines, it seems like a lot of chaos, but there’s actually a lot of stuff getting done, important things,” he said. “Importantly, there’s a lot of bipartisan work that goes on and I don’t think a lot of it gets reported on.”