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Politics

Historic nomination of Deb Haaland for Interior secretary spurs hope and apprehension in Alaska

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: February 25
  • Published February 25

Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., testifies before a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Secretary of the Interior on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

In an oil-rich state that’s home to many of the nation’s tribes, some Alaskans are torn over the potential confirmation of Deb Haaland as Interior secretary.

A member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Haaland also would be the first cabinet member of American Indian descent. Her historic nomination by President Joe Biden thrills many Alaska Native leaders who hope she empowers young people, addresses needs in villages and listens closely to Native views.

As a Democratic House lawmaker from New Mexico, Haaland also has supported halting oil and gas development to slow climate change. That is generating concerns in industry circles about where she’ll fall on major Alaska projects, such as ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil prospect, which she once objected to in a letter.

If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland will take the helm of a department with a giant role in Alaska, one that manages most of the federal land covering 60% of the state. The Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all with critical responsibilities in the state, would fall under Haaland’s watch.

Ana Hoffman, co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state’s largest Native organization, said she’s conflicted over Haaland.

“As an Alaska Native woman, I feel a sense of pride and honor that’s undeniable,” Hoffman said. “It is long overdue to see a person with her background and her upbringing in that role.”

But, Hoffman said, Haaland may have different priorities for resource development from those of the village corporation that Hoffman runs, the Bethel Native Corp. in Southwest Alaska.

One question is how Haaland’s approach toward resource development will affect projects such as the proposed Donlin Gold mine in the region, Hoffman said. The corporation has not taken a position on the mine, but will seek contracting opportunities there if it’s developed.

In a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week, Haaland pivoted away from her pre-nomination statements to “keep fossil fuels in the ground,” build no more pipelines and end oil and gas leasing on federal lands.

She told committee members that fossil fuels will play a major role in the U.S. for years to come, though she stressed climate change must be addressed. She said she supports Biden’s effort to create millions of jobs by cleaning up the environment, advancing renewable energy projects and improving infrastructure. She said she’ll fight for jobs, supports responsible mining and wants improved rural broadband internet services to support telehealth and other needs.

“I’m committed to working cooperatively with all stakeholders and all of Congress to strike the right balance going forward,” Haaland said.

Alaska senators uncommitted

The uncertainty in Alaska extends to its all-Republican congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said he has “growing concerns” that Haaland will move to reverse progress on large Alaska projects. Sullivan said the anxiety comes amid an “unprecedented assault” by Biden on Alaska’s resources, like the temporary moratorium on oil and gas activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, signed on Biden’s first day in office.

Haaland “is interviewing to be Alaskans’ landlord, but it’s not clear at all that she likes her would-be tenants,” Sullivan said in an interview Tuesday.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

Sullivan and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski haven’t announced how they’ll vote. Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia promised support for Haaland after the hearings, increasing the chance she’ll be confirmed. Her confirmation vote before the full Senate hasn’t been set.

Sullivan and Murkowski have also expressed concerns with Haaland’s views on Alaska Native corporations. Haaland in May signed a letter with five Democratic House colleagues opposed to the corporations receiving part of the $8 billion in CARES Act money set aside for tribes. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up the question of eligibility for the corporations, after several tribes sued the federal government last year.

However, Alaska Rep. Don Young calls the second-term congresswoman a friend and introduced her before her hearing with the Senate committee on Tuesday.

Young said he has a lot at stake as a lawmaker in an oil and gas state, but he encouraged senators to support her. He said Haaland will listen and works across the aisle, like she has with him to pass bills to strengthen tribes.

On Wednesday during the committee hearing, Murkowski pressed Haaland over a letter she signed last year with four Democratic House colleagues. The letter asked former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to stop federal approval for the Willow oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Willow may be among Alaska’s most promising job prospects, one that advanced under both the Obama and Trump administrations, Murkowski said. She sought a commitment from Haaland that the project would move forward under her watch, without additional changes or reviews.

Haaland said she will follow the law. She said that being a secretary will be different from being a congresswoman.

“So I do take that role very seriously,” she said. “If I’m confirmed, I will absolutely consult with you.”

In response to another request from Murkowski, Haaland committed to meeting with King Cove residents about their unsuccessful effort to carve a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula. The road would improve access to emergency medical services, but is opposed by conservation groups in part because the refuge provides important habitat for migratory birds.

‘An open door’

Bernadette Demientieff, head of the Gwich’in Steering Committee that opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said she believes Haaland will instinctively understand the refuge is a “holy place” that needs protecting from drilling, in part for the Gwich’in people who hunt caribou there.

Haaland will also want to protect other lands that support Native subsistence hunting and fishing, Demientieff predicted. That includes the Bristol Bay region where many fishermen and Native groups are seeking permanent protections to stop the Pebble copper and gold prospect.

“I feel that someone of our kind, of our nationality, understands and can relate and would make better decisions for the people that they are representing,” Demientieff said.

She said Haaland’s selection is an empowering moment for Alaska Native people.

“I think it will show a lot of our young children of color it’s possible to be in such high-level spaces and making a difference in this world,” she said.

Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka in Fairbanks on Oct. 19, 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Harry Brower Jr., mayor of the North Slope Borough, said in a statement that the borough is worried that Haaland might stop Willow or similar oil projects. The borough receives tax revenue from oil development to fund services such as police and public works.

But Brower said borough officials took hope in Haaland’s statements to the committee, including that she recognizes the vital role that oil and gas revenue plays in communities.

“Nowhere is this more true than on the North Slope of Alaska,” Brower said. “We have responsibly developed our lands for almost 50 years, we’ve proven time and time again you can have the best of both worlds. A strong economy, with a clean and healthy environment.”

The Alaska Federation of Natives applauded Haaland’s nomination in a statement in December.

Julie Kitka, the group’s president, said the group has met with Haaland in a videoconference and has invited her to Alaska, Kitka said.

“She’ll be a voice in the cabinet on Native American issues on every subject going to the cabinet,” Kitka said. “At that level, you’re weighing in on a lot of stuff” from every department.”

The group plans to find areas of common ground with Haaland. It will focus on an infrastructure bill to help address overcrowded housing, poor roads in Alaska villages and other needs. Other opportunities include broadband internet expansion and recurring funding for programs to support rural justice, instead of uncertain grants.

“We feel there is an open door, and she wants to be involved, so it’s very exciting,” Kitka said.

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