In a sign the honeymoon may be nearing an end for Gov. Bill Walker, an Alaska tribal government is blasting him for promoting a ConocoPhillips project that would result in the first oil production from federal lands in the nation's largest undeveloped reserve.
The criticism -- coming from the North Slope village of Nuiqsut -- may mark a turning point for a governor who rode into office with strong Alaska Native support and a popular running mate in Byron Mallott, a Tlingit from Southeast. Ironically, the complaints come as Walker takes early steps to strengthen the state's bruised relations with more than 200-plus tribes.
The dispute centers around what's known as Greater Moose's Tooth Unit 1, a proposed development in the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area coveted by conservation groups who want it protected as much as possible and Alaskans who want it rapidly opened for development, such as Lisa Murkowski, chair of the U.S. Senate Energy Committee.
The project could ultimately produce up to 30,000 barrels of crude a day, Conoco estimates, helping combat years of declining oil production in Alaska.
The company's proposal for an 8-mile road and parallel pipeline recently won a key wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the Bureau of Land Management that oversees the reserve must give final approval for the project and determine how it will move forward.
Tribal leaders in the village of 450 are hammering Walker for trying to sway Interior Secretary Sally Jewell with "behind-the-door negotiations" after the public comment period on BLM's environmental impact statement closed. Walker has called for rapid approval of ConocoPhillips' development plan, which the seven-member tribal council believes will hurt subsistence fish and wildlife resources, tribal leaders said.
The tribal government says the governor is trying to leapfrog over another development alternative that is supported by the tribe over Conoco's plan. The Bureau of Land Management agrees with the tribal government, preferring what it calls Alternative B.
In a key difference with Conoco's proposal, Alternative B would not allow the access road and pipeline to violate a 3-mile protective buffer around an important subsistence area known as Fish Creek. Alternative B also calls for one bridge instead of two, because the road would swing south of Crea Creek.
At the very least, Walker and Jewell should have consulted the federally recognized tribe before they began meeting to discuss the project, Nuiqsut tribal leaders say.
"This is blatantly unfair, and shows tremendous disregard for the voice of the tribal people of the region," wrote Samuel Kunaknana, tribal president, in a Jan. 8 letter to David Conrad, the acting director of Indian Energy Policy. The letter was cc'ed to Jewell and other federal officials.
"To bulldoze through the permitting process and push aside mitigation measures that help protect subsistence resources and environmental quality, completely disregarding the impacts on the tribal people of the region, is unconscionable," Kunaknana wrote.
Staff in the governor's office said Walker did not receive a copy of the letter. They said he is doing what he should as governor -- promoting projects in Alaska by speaking directly with federal officials. But they said he also wants to have an open line with Nuiqsut and all groups in Alaska.
As part of that, the newly elected governor is taking early steps to formalize the state's relations with more than 200 tribes. At the same time, Walker is dealing with numerous other issues as he moves into office, said Craig Fleener, an Arctic policy adviser in the governor's office working on tribal issues.
"We'll do the best job we can and engage Nuiqsut just like we would any community with an issue," said Fleener, Walker's running mate before he left the ticket to allow a Mallott-Walker union. "The thing that's tough for us right now is many projects are taking place across Alaska."
Paulette Schuerch, Walker's rural adviser during his campaign, is also working in the governor's office to help develop a rural policy for the administration. "One of the great things tribes have with the federal government is a consultation process and that is something this administration will look at," she said.
The ConocoPhillips development plan Walker supports has broad backing across the state, Walker's spokeswoman said. The Native village corporations for Nuiqsut and the North Slope region are in favor, as well as the North Slope Borough government that includes Nuiqsut and several other communities.
Conoco's plan would allow a road, pipeline and other structures to encroach half a mile into the three-mile buffer along Fish Creek, an area rich with fish and caribou where the village has traditionally hunted and fished. BLM created the buffer around the creek as part of its management plan for the reserve.
The tribe cites a Dec. 22 letter from Walker to Jewell to argue that he has created a special audience with Jewell and is snubbing the tribe. In the letter, Walker tells the Interior Secretary that oil is the "economic lifeblood" of Alaska. He urges rapid approval of Conoco's plan.
Walker said the agency appears to be throwing up regulatory roadblocks in front of the oil giant in a possible effort to stop the project, and said he will continue to communicate with Jewell, including in their next scheduled telephone conversation.
"My request to you, Madame Secretary, is to implement an expedited permit approval strategy, thereby allowing the project to move forward both responsibly and successfully," wrote Walker, who met with Jewell earlier this month when he traveled to Washington, D.C.
Martha Itta, tribal administrator, said she feels betrayed. "I voted for Bill Walker thinking he would change the process and make the tribes stronger and let federal agencies do these projects the right way. But no, he's pushing for the other alternative."
Kunaknana said a 6-mile access road for another Conoco project in the area was built on a tall bed of gravel and rises several feet above the tundra and permafrost, preventing hunters from crossing on snowmachines and ATVs. He fears the new access road would be another long barrier for humans, while also imperiling migrating and spawning fish and caribou on the move.
"We call it the China wall," said Kunaknana of the existing road.
ConocoPhillips is working with villagers to find solutions to their concerns about the road, which was built to permit specifications, said Amy Burnett, communications specialist with ConocoPhillips. The company has installed temporary access ramps in part by using packed snow, and is considering options for a permanent fix.
The new access road will be on drier ground and won't need to be as high as the previous road, said Burnett. It will also include three pullout locations, allowing local residents to park their vehicles while subsistence hunting as they travel on it. A description included in the Corps' analysis said the road would be 5 feet thick.
Conservation groups are also siding with the tribe. The village corporation takes the opposite view.
Isaac Nukapigak, president of the Kuukpik Corp. in Nuiqsut, which owns land that could be developed for the project, said he agrees with the Corps that Conoco's plan is more environmentally friendly, in part because it would have the least impact on marshy areas and because the road would be shorter, requiring less gravel fill.
"I think they need to do their homework," he said of the tribal leaders.
He thought Walker was doing what he should be doing as governor, communicating a view that has seen wide support, including in the village of Nuiqsut, said Nukapigak.
"He's the man, he's got the right to submit his opinion," Nukapigak said.
Now it's up to the BLM -- which said it would consider the Corps' view before making a final decision -- to make the call. A BLM spokeswoman said the agency plans to make a decision soon.
Meanwhile, Schuerch, in the governor's office, said she planned to reach out to the tribal council in Nuiqsut to hear their concerns.
"We can share our thoughts, but the most important thing is opening a dialogue," she said. "The conversation needs to start."