KOTZEBUE -- Alaska leaders continued to pressure U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at a rare event in Northwest Alaska on Tuesday, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski saying that reducing the budget of the Interior Department is just one of the tools she has to control the agency.
Jewell took the threat seriously, saying jobs in Alaska are on the line if that happens.
The comments, made separately to reporters, were part of an ongoing turf battle between state and federal officials that at times has overshadowed a board retreat organized by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state's most prominent Alaska Native group.
The two-day retreat in the Inupiat city of Kotzebue -- an unusual gathering involving many of Alaska's top officials -- was designed to highlight Native and tribal issues.
But with Jewell attending, the Obama administration's recent moves seeking to restrict oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a portion of the U.S. Arctic Ocean attracted much of the attention.
Jewell defended herself as not "anti-development" and said one focus of oil and gas activity in Alaska should be the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an Indiana-size chunk of public land where the Obama administration recently agreed to support a ConocoPhillips plan for an oil field development, with strong mitigation measures.
Jewell also said development in targeted areas of the little-explored U.S. Arctic Ocean can occur responsibly.
Many Alaska leaders said the NPR-A move, if the mitigation costs don't kill development, is not enough for a state facing annual deficits for years to come because of declining oil production. They're also skeptical the Obama administration will allow development off Alaska's northern coasts, with Royal Dutch Shell still waiting on federal permission before it can drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer.
The Wilderness Society rose to Jewell's defense on Tuesday, issuing a statement that said she has shown great leadership in moving to set aside land that is too special to drill.
"We hope the secretary comes away from this visit knowing that many Alaskans support protection for wild, public lands" and good, science-based decisions, said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for the group.
Jewell, who spoke at the closed-door retreat and took questions from an audience of more than 100, said she heard support and opposition for the effort to designate ANWR as wilderness, something that will require congressional approval.
With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, Murkowski said that approval won't happen. But Murkowski said she is afraid Obama wants to see the trans-Alaska pipeline shut down completely, and that he'll eventually use the Antiquities Act to single-handedly declare the oil-rich coastal plain of the refuge a monument before he leaves office.
Jewell said there are no plans to do that.
Murkowski said that comment offers her no reassurance. "It's not the secretary that does that. It's the president, and I haven't heard that uttered from his lips yet," she said.
One way to head off the Interior Department is by squeezing the agency's funding, Murkowski said, a possibility now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and Murkowski is chair of the Senate Energy Committee that oversees Interior's budget.
Jewell said she hopes the Energy Committee and Murkowski recognize that the agency and its various departments play an important role in Alaska, including providing jobs. She said she hopes she can have a thoughtful dialogue with the committee about the budget.
"I'm very hopeful she doesn't hurt the men and women that are working hard on behalf of all Americans and Alaskans, who require the support from Congress to do our work in the various federal agencies, whether it's the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey," which is currently doing aerial mapping of Alaska.
"These are just a few of the elements of the Department of Interior that are very important to the state of Alaska," she said.
Murkowski shot back to say she is fighting for access to land. "Well, if budgets are reduced and people lose their jobs, then that is an outcome," Murkowski said.
"But the land is the land, and that's what I am here to protect, and the people of the state of Alaska and their right to access the lands," she said. "This is what we need to be fighting for. I'm not going to be fighting for some short-term job for a bureaucrat."
The AFN retreat, held at a new hotel in Kotzebue, featured speeches from top Alaska officials, including the entire Alaska congressional delegation, leaders of the Alaska House and Senate, and Gov. Bill Walker. Several other key lawmakers and officials were also in the room.
Murkowski called the gathering "unprecedented" and said it was the first time so many top Alaska delegates had gathered in one spot since the funeral of Sen. Ted Stevens almost five years ago.
Though both sides said the dialogue at the retreat was respectful, Jewell heard comments from other upset Alaskans, many of whom demanded that Washington must do a better job of consulting with Alaska groups about its plans and intentions.
North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower, who opposes the administration's move to further restrict ANWR land, said the administration sometimes listens only to the voice of conservation groups or isolated tribal entities, according to a transcript of her speech.
"Even if we may disagree over an outcome, we deserve the respect of being consulted and informed before we read someone else's press release," it said.
Jewell told reporters that the decision on ANWR came after more than a year of consultation in 2010 and 2011, while she was working her "old day job at REI," referring to her former role as president for the outdoor gear retailer.
She said the agency listened primarily to local voices on the ground. "We absolutely consulted and paid attention and will continue to do that in all the decisions," she said.
Jewell, who visited the climate-threatened village of Kivalina on a side trip Monday, announced that Interior would provide $8 million for tribal projects related to climate change adaptation and coastal management planning.
That's up from the $2.3 million provided the year before, for grants that didn't go to any of Alaska's poster-villages for climate change in need of relocation, such as Kivalina, Newtok or Shishmaref.
None of those villages applied, an Interior spokeswoman said. The vast majority of the grants went to Lower 48 tribes.
Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, said in an email that Alaska tribes are on the front lines of climate change but others across the nation face an uncertain future as well.
"We can award only to communities that apply for the grants," he said.
He added: "It looks like we may have a lot of work to do to help develop the basic capacity even to apply for the grants. We want Alaska Natives to be successful and to have resources to become more adaptable to climate, so we will work to develop those capacities."
Jewell, in Kotzebue, said, "We'll make a decision where the money goes based on the greatest need."
She said it's likely that Alaska villages will do well. She's seen the problems caused by climate change firsthand, not only in Kivalina but in Kaktovik and Barrow during another trip to the North Slope in 2013.
Jewell was in Kotzebue in the mid-1980s, as well, when she lived in Washington but was a banker for NANA, the Alaska Native corporation for the Northwest region. (She said she's certain she did poorly in the blanket toss.)
"It's clear there are interesting challenges that have emerged since I was first here about 30 years ago," she said. "We could see the impact of coastal erosion in the village (of Kivalina) and see the fear and hear the fear in people's voices about what's happening with climate change."
At a press conference in Anchorage on Tuesday afternoon, after leaving the Arctic, Jewell said she didn't hear any concern in Kivalina about resource development.
"They talked to me about personal life and safety. They talked to me about subsistence. They talked about a change in climate," she said.
Jewell said one person in the village asked, "If oil and gas development is part of the source of carbon pollution, why do we continue to do more?"
Jewell said she wants to see Alaska's pipeline full, but not by drilling in the coastal plain of ANWR.
As for state and federal relations, she said there has been a rift between Alaska and the federal government for a decade.
Resurrecting a task force of federal and state land managers could be one way to enhance the relationship between governmental agencies. That process may be best served if politicians and political leaders like her aren't part of that group, she said.
"We have a chance to hit the reset button between the federal land management agencies and the state land management agencies in the state of Alaska," she said.
-- Reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed to this article.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing