Paul Jenkins: Lisa Murkowski is getting angry, and that's good for Alaska

commentFebruary 15, 2014 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski ticks off some Alaskans. Too moderate; too reasonable; too measured, they say. Let's face it, her no-fireworks, middle-of-the-road politics have all the pizzazz of a Sean Parnell speech. She offers few surprises to anybody except Joe Miller, who has a Bronze Star.

It is, therefore, refreshing to see her get a little cranky, though it may be bad news for el presidenté and his forked-tongue minions. Some observers say Murkowski is frustrated; that she realizes there is no working with some of these people; that she finally understands this administration could not care less about Alaska.

What has her steamed? Oh, Arctic offshore drilling, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, energy policy, the Environmental Protection Agency and an ever-growing list of roadblocks and federal doublespeak, observers say. Particularly galling? Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's treatment of King Cove.

Murkowski fired off a terse letter to Jewell, holding Jewell's feet to the fire for kissing off her Dec. 23 vow to work for "the health and safety of King Cove residents" after blithely denying them sure access to emergency medical help.

It turns out Jewell's Interior Department -- surprise! -- has done nothing for King Cove since her headline-grabbing promises. How do we know? Obama's pick for assistant secretary to oversee fish and wildlife and parks, Rhea Suh, blabbed during her nomination hearing.

Suh could not offer anything the agency has done since Jewell nixed a land swap that would have permitted a life-saving, one-lane dirt road linking the Aleut fishing village of King Cove to an all-weather runway at Cold Bay.

The Alaska Peninsula village 600 miles southwest of Anchorage has been trying to build a short road through the 300,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for decades. It would be 9 miles long, 13 feet wide, barricaded on either side, used only for emergencies -- and connect with roads already built in the refuge. To sweeten the pot, the King Cove Corp. and the state offered 56,000 acres for 206 acres from the refuge for the road and 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Villagers say the region's ferocious storms make travel by road the only sure bet. More than a dozen people have died in plane crashes over the years trying to reach medical help or because they could not reach help in time.

Environmentalists and others oppose the swap but Congress, after spending more than $30 million on clinic upgrades, airstrip improvements and a hovercraft at King Cove in futile attempts to dodge a decision, approved the trade in 2009 but required an environmental impact statement. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last February ruled against the trade -- without pinpointing what a road would hurt. After all, hunting already is allowed in the refuge

Murkowski, assured that then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would not overturn Fish and Wildlife, pushed to leave the final decision for Jewell, his replacement. She even threatened to block Jewell's confirmation and persuaded Jewell to travel with her to King Cove in August, hoping for reason.

Despite that, Jewell just before Christmas rolled over for environmentalists, denying the "surest option to provide safe and reliable emergency medical access for the residents of King Cove," Murkowski wrote To soften the blow, Jewell had promised to help King Cove with alternatives but Interior has done nothing.

"With the health and safety of the residents of King Cove still directly threatened, I expect that you fully understand why I am unwilling to let this matter recede," Murkowski wrote Jewell. "I also expect that you understand why I am unwilling to allow your department to do nothing to help the Alaskans it has promised to assist, yet, to this point, only further imperiled."

That Jewell's agency has done nothing; that it continues to ignore its federal trust responsibility to King Cove; that it continues its mindless disconnect with the people of Alaska all speak volumes about the Obama administration. And Murkowski gets it.

In the long run, Jewell's decision to appease green interests may prove expensive for Obama and Democrats who have pegged her as a moderate. It may have cost them a reasonable senator willing to work across the aisle for her state.

Murkowski is angry. She may be coming into her own and about to channel Ted Stevens.

That would be good for Alaska -- and it comes none too soon.


Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.

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