Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s relationship with a key Alaska senator remained on thin ice yesterday, complicating Jewell’s efforts to boost agency funding and advance the Obama administration’s legislative agenda.
Jewell told reporters yesterday that she and Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have maintained "a constructive relationship."
That’s despite Murkowski’s public attacks on the secretary’s recent decisions to set aside Alaska lands and waters from oil and gas drilling and reject a key road.
"Murkowski is a very strong advocate for her state," Jewell told reporters after a 2½-hour budget hearing before Murkowski’s panel.
But Murkowski didn’t share the love.
She blasted Jewell for "depriving [Alaskans] of jobs, revenue, security and prosperity" and being aloof to Alaskans’ need to access federally protected lands.
"The chairman is furious and bewildered," said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon. "I don’t know how constructive it is when the secretary clearly has not shown a real interest in having a constructive relationship."
Despite the conflict, some areas of bipartisanship surfaced during the hearing, most notably funding efforts for the National Park Service. But on other issues, tensions flared.
Murkowski yesterday took particular aim at Jewell’s decision in late 2013 to reject a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which Alaskans wanted to improve emergency egress from the remote city of King Cove.
When Murkowski asked Jewell how many times since then that King Cove residents have been medically evacuated to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay, Jewell said she did not know the exact number.
While the number is ever-changing, Dillon said Jewell testified "with absolutely no knowledge of what was happening in King Cove."
"She’s done nothing to help the people of King Cove despite her promise to do so," Dillon said.
Jewell said she’s working with the Army Corps of Engineers to explore alternatives to the Izembek road to improve public safety in King Cove.
Congress during the Clinton administration earmarked $37.5 million to improve safety there. Local officials bought a hovercraft to transport patients more quickly across the bay, but the hovercraft was later sold because running it was too expensive.
Jewell yesterday also acknowledged how low oil prices have affected Alaska’s bottom line. But she said Interior is making the majority of federal oil and gas resources in the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A) and Arctic Ocean available to exploration.
Yet Murkowski’s frustration with Jewell could be a roadblock as the Obama administration seeks an Interior fiscal 2016 budget that exceeds limits set in the Budget Control Act and as Jewell pushes legislation including new oil and gas inspection fees and reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Murkowski has said she plans to use her perch as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee panel that funds Interior to force the administration’s hand on natural resources policy.
Park Service funding
Murkowski’s anger over Jewell’s Alaska agenda overshadowed some glimmers of bipartisanship at yesterday’s budget hearing.
"It was a really good hearing for parks," said John Garder, budget expert for the National Parks Conservation Association.
For example, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he supports Jewell’s budget proposal to fund the Centennial Challenge, which would leverage private-sector funding for key park projects.
NPS’s budget seeks $50 million, to be matched by private-sector investments, for signature projects and programs at national parks to prepare them for NPS’s centennial in 2016.
"We could do some exciting things to try to generate more interest in the parks," Portman said.
Portman supported a similar federal cost-share program for parks while serving as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under the George W. Bush administration. Bush proposed a matching program that asked private entities to contribute at least $100 million annually, matched by the same amount in federal funds, though the program never took off.
Portman is expected to introduce legislation soon with Murkowski and committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that will provide legislative authorization for Obama’s centennial challenge.
"We’re excited to see that bill," Garder said. "It is past time for national parks to get some robust funding to support important projects."
The administration’s budget proposal seeks to cut down on the Park Service’s $11.5 billion deferred maintenance backlog.
It’s one of Murkowski’s top policy priorities this Congress, too.
"We’ve got to figure out, then, how we’re going to be dealing with the maintenance issues, because I don’t want families coming to one of their national parks for the very first time and seeing that it looks shoddy," she said.
Murkowski suggested that lawmakers should "get a little more creative with" the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program created to buy new federal land and conserve private lands that is supported by offshore oil and gas royalties. "I think we ought to look to that as a potential funding opportunity," she said.
Murkowski is not the first, and likely not the last, lawmaker to suggest using LWCF to address Interior maintenance challenges. LWCF is authorized at $900 million annually but currently appropriated at roughly one-third that amount.
It’s a proposal conservation groups are pushing back against.
"Deferred maintenance backlogs have grown so large that funds put into LWCF would never be sufficient to adequately address the backlog," Garder said.
He said land acquisitions under LWCF can help consolidate inholdings and lead to management efficiencies that save the government money, while spurring more outdoor recreation. LWCF funding should be earmarked for conservation, he said.
Reporter Corbin Hiar contributed.