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Public Statements

Executive Session - Federal Land

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I follow my colleague from Oregon, the chairman of the Energy Committee, here in discussing the qualifications of the nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. We recognize as westerners that this is an appointment, this is a position that has great significance, great meaning to our States, so we pay attention to these nominees, we pay attention to who is the Secretary of the Interior.

I have taken the position that our constitutional responsibility for advice and consent should begin with very thoughtful questions on our part, and then, absent any seriously disqualifying factors, we should conclude with the confirmation of the President's nominees. Our obligation to get answers to our questions is always a serious one, and the duty weighs most heavily when the interests of our constituents are directly at stake.

I mention the impact the Department of the Interior has particularly on our Western States--our States that have so much in public lands, our States where we have national forests, where we have BLM lands, rangelands, refuge lands. In Alaska and really in many parts across the West, the Federal Government's biggest and most prominent role is really that of a landlord. Sometimes you have a good relationship with your landlord, and other times it feels as if the landlord won't even let you put a nail in the wall to hang a picture. So, again, we look very critically and very carefully at this position.

In several States, the Federal Government controls the majority of the land. In Alaska, 64 percent of the State is controlled from here in Washington, DC. So that means an individual who may have an inholding in some Federal land basically has to get permission to get to his or her inholding within a park. It is almost hard for many of my colleagues to believe that so much of what it is we do has to go through this process of approval, but that is our reality.

In Alaska, with the Federal ownership, there are more than 230 million acres that are held in Federal ownership. That is an area which is larger than the State of Texas. We always like to compare ourselves--Alaska to Texas--but the fact is that the Federal public lands in Alaska are larger than the size of the State of Texas. We have over 57 million acres of wilderness. That is about the size of the State of Minnesota. And that is just sitting in my State.

The proportion of Federal land in Alaska is exceeded only by that of our colleagues from Nevada. The majority leader and Senator Heller remind us quite frequently the Federal lands held in their State are at about 85 percent.

So when you think about what this does, the Federal land classifications that we have to deal with, oftentimes it not only severely restricts the usage of Federal lands by our people, but as a practical matter they restrict the use of State and private lands too.

So, again, the Secretary of the Interior is important to the future of a State such as Alaska and the West, but really, as it relates to other Cabinet members, this is one to which we are going to pay serious attention.

I had occasion to come to this floor several months ago to discuss a decision that came out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In that decision, they somehow found cause to oppose a single-lane gravel road, 10 miles, that would connect the community of King Cove--near the Aleutians--connect it to the smaller community of less than 100 people of Cold Bay. The reason for the need to connect these two communities is Cold Bay has the second longest runway in the State of Alaska. King Cove, on the other hand, where most of the people live--about 900-some-odd Native Alaskans--has an airport that is dicey at best. We have seen accidents, we have seen lives lost as folks have tried to leave King Cove for medical services.

It was an issue that, for me and for the people of King Cove, was far beyond a discussion about what happens when you put a small road through a refuge. For the people of King Cove, this was about safety, this was about life and safety, and they felt they were not being heard by their Federal landlord. The agencies had not heard the people. In fact, the Department had not heard the people. Now, they had listened to the biologists and they had gotten that message, but the people had not been heard.

So through a series of very lengthy discussions with Secretary Salazar, through a series of conversations with the nominee Sally Jewell, and through the impassioned words of many of the people of King Cove, who traveled over 4,000 miles to come here to Washington, DC, to knock on the door of the Secretary and say: Please hear our voices, there has been an accommodation, there has been an agreement reached. And I appreciate my colleague, the chairman, helping us with this. The Department of the Interior has agreed to have the new Secretary as well as the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs review the public health and safety impacts of the decision to build this road.

But I think it is important that folks understand this wasn't a parochial issue I was raising here on the floor. I kept referring to it as the King Cove issue, but it is not one single issue, and it is not parochial. It is obvious to the people of Alaska why this was such a considerable deal, why it was so important the people of King Cove be heard. For them, it was not just about a road, it was an issue of overreach. It was a symbol of Federal overreach on way too many policies we see come out of the Department and the harm that causes across our Nation.

The reality is so many of us, particularly those in the Western States, have our own King Cove. We all have those instances when issues have come up, where the people from the States we represent have to go knocking on the door of some Federal agency for permission, have to try to navigate a morass of regulations, and they do not feel as though they are being heard. Every day we have Federal restrictions making it harder for local people to live and to prosper.

I made a big effort to make sure the incoming Secretary of the Interior not only understood the particulars of King Cove--and I welcome the opportunity to travel with her when she comes to Alaska and flies out to King Cove hopefully at the end of the summer--for her not only to understand this issue but for her to understand the bigger role she will assume as Secretary of the Interior and how important it is for her to listen to all sides and to listen to the people she represents. As Secretary of the Interior, she is the one to implement that special trust responsibility the Federal Government has to our first people, to our Native people, so she needs to see and hear for herself.

She also needs to fully understand what she has in front of her--as Senator Wyden mentioned, the massive public lands that will be under her jurisdiction as Secretary, understanding what that means to ranchers and farmers and those who are the recreators in our national parks, to those who will harvest timber, to those who will use our lands in the manner in which they are intended--multiple use--for her to fully understand what it means to be the custodian, the landlord of our amazing public lands in this country. We all need to be working with her.

I have no question about Ms. Jewell's intelligence and her competence as a manager. I have been very impressed with what I have seen as her level of sincerity with her very distinguished private sector career. It has been noted that she has probably spent more time in Alaska prior to coming to the Department of Interior than any other nominee outside of Walter Hickel, who was our former Governor and served as Secretary of the Interior. So she gives me comfort with that, knowing that she understands much of what we have to deal with in Alaska.

These are all important qualities as we think about her competence as a manager, as we think about her intelligence. But dealing with an agency the size, the scope, and the complexity of the Department of Interior really requires the ability to focus not only on the debates and conflicts that we are facing today, but it is going to require an understanding of how we got here, the fact that the debates and conflicts of today often are based on years, decades, perhaps even centuries of history. Those who are steeped in this history raise the importance of the Secretary understanding the context for the many difficult decisions that will be made.

I had an opportunity to ask a lot of questions of Sally Jewell not only in our private meeting but before the committee and then also in writing. I asked questions about my questions. I wanted to be thorough. And I do concede that Ms. Jewell will be on a learning curve as she assumes the position of Secretary. But in her answers to questions at the hearing and in her written submissions, she has pointed out her experience and her skill at bringing diverse groups of people together to solve difficult problems on which they have been divided historically, and I do take her at her word there. I will certainly commit to participating in that dialog and to bringing all of my fellow western constituents with me, whether it is literally or figuratively. I believe that is important.

Ms. Jewell has used the word ``convener'' when describing herself, and I think this will be a very important task and role that she will assume. There are conflicting groups and conflicting interests, and Ms. Jewell has spoken to how she has reconciled that in the past with her previous work experience, not only at REI but at other places, and I do believe she has the skill sets to accomplish just that.

So with this commitment she has made to me and to others on the committee, I will certainly take the view that the fact that Ms. Jewell has perhaps not been through the full gamut of the conflicts that surround so much of what happens within Interior, perhaps that is a good thing because perhaps she is able to look at some of these issues through a fresh perspective, a different lens. Perhaps because she is not so embedded in the history, she will be able to look at this anew. And I think that is good. I think that is a positive. I certainly will look forward to engaging substantively with her as we complete this process--and beyond--on these issues, on how she can really bring her problem-solving skills to bear in a way that will serve all Americans.

I think it is telling--and it was noted in the Energy Committee hearing by one of our colleagues--that Ms. Jewell brings to the table as the nominee for the Secretary of Interior a business background that is quite considerable. She is a petroleum engineer who has actually fracked a well, so she has experience there. She has experience in Alaska and worked on the beginning portion of how we built out the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. She did it from the Seattle area but has that skill set as well.

It was asked somewhat tongue-in-cheek by one of my colleagues on the Republican side: Well, you have all these great characteristics. Why would President Obama select you?

So I think it is important to recognize that we have before us a nominee who brings a unique set of skill sets and experiences to us that I am hopeful will be beneficial. This is important to me as an Alaskan, to know we have someone who will be a listener, who will be a convener, who will work to solve problems. I am looking forward to the opportunity to spend time in Alaska with her as she visits with the people up north to better understand some of the challenges we face and hopefully work with us on these issues that are so critically important.

I appreciate the good work of my colleague and the chairman of the committee in getting us to this point so that we can move Ms. Jewell's nomination forward. I look forward to supporting her and working with her during her tenure as Secretary of the Interior.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.


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