U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland arrives in Alaska this week for a whirlwind tour of travel and stakeholder meetings, in a state where the federal government manages some 60% of the land.
Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet position, will be joined on her trip by Tracy Stone-Manning and Martha Williams, the national heads of the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Haaland will hold numerous meetings with Alaska Native, labor, business and conservation leaders in Anchorage and Fairbanks, according to participants.
She will also travel to Seward, and to the hub town of Utqiagvik on Alaska’s North Slope, where the state’s oil industry is concentrated. And she’s planning a visit, if weather allows, to the predominantly Indigenous community of King Cove, where for decades, residents have been thwarted in their push to build an access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula.
Cabinet secretaries often travel to Alaska in the spring and summer to tout spending on federal projects — and, on occasion, for a salmon fishing side trip.
Haaland’s visit will highlight the money flowing to the state from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. But the secretary’s focus this week will be hearing from residents, said Melissa Schwartz, her communications director.
“Her goal is to come and listen and learn. It is not to announce policy,” Schwartz, who’s accompanying Haaland, said in a brief phone call Monday. “It is truly to have listening sessions and roundtable conversations and hear from people about the issues that are important to them.”
Haaland’s visit comes during her second year on the job; the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to cancel plans to visit sooner.
Her department and its agencies are at the center of an array of polarizing public land and environmental issues in Alaska, ranging from natural resource extraction to fish and wildlife management to global warming.
The BLM is responsible for oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Biden administration has suspended development as it reassesses Trump-era environmental reviews.
The bureau is also reconsidering multiple Trump administration decisions that were aimed at easing access to resource extraction projects, including the proposed road to the Ambler Mining District in Northwest Alaska and an industry-friendly management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska.
Those Biden administration decisions have drawn praise from certain Alaska Native groups and conservation advocates. But Haaland and Biden have also faced criticism from Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration and GOP U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.
During a public address in February, Murkowski, who supported Haaland’s confirmation last year, wouldn’t directly answer a state legislator’s question about whether she has changed her mind about that vote.
“I’d like to change her mind on the decisions that she has made that have negatively impacted the state of Alaska,” Murkowski said. “The reality is we are where we are … We have a secretary that is putting in place policies and proposals that are not good for our state.”
Haaland’s office has not released a detailed schedule for her visit, and representatives from Murkowski’s, Sullivan’s and Dunleavy’s offices have not confirmed that they will meet with the secretary. But Sullivan, in an opinion piece Friday co-published with the mayor of the North Slope Borough, called on Haaland to make commitments in support of development in the Arctic Refuge and the petroleum reserve, and of the King Cove road.
They also asked her to implement legislation successfully pushed by Sullivan that will allow Alaska Natives to claim land allotments of up to 160 acres if they missed a deadline to apply while they served in the Vietnam War. In the opinion piece, Sullivan said the Biden administration has delayed in carrying the legislation out.
That issue is also a priority for Joe Nelson, co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, which is meeting with Haaland during her visit. Some 50 people will be participating, and Nelson said he plans to highlight the challenges for Vietnam veterans in claiming allotments in his home region of Southeast Alaska, where much of the land is controlled by the federal government or otherwise unavailable.
“We’ve got quite a few board members that are going to be showing up in-person and virtual, and we all have our lists to talk to her about,” said Nelson, who’s also the board chair of the Juneau-based Native corporation Sealaska. “The hope is that she hears the message and it rolls down to her different departments and divisions, and that we’re able to move projects and things along while she’s here.”
AFN leaders also hope to underscore the importance of efficient federal permitting, said Julie Kitka, the federation’s president, along with the urgency of fish shortages and deep concerns about food security in Alaska.
“It’s a very troubling issue to the people in our communities to go without fish, and not to have a clear plan on that,” Kitka said.
Labor, university, municipal and business leaders will also meet with Haaland during a Tuesday roundtable in Anchorage. Those include Kara Moriarty, president of the state’s main petroleum industry trade group, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
The Biden administration has pushed to transition America’s economy away from fossil fuels — though not quickly enough for some activists — and Moriarty said she wasn’t expecting to get an audience with Haaland before she got an invitation last week.
She said she’ll use the time to underscore the importance her members to get “access” — to oil-bearing lands, to permits, and to investment, among other things. Moriarty said she’s unaware of any plans by Haaland to visit Alaska oil facilities, though she’s heard that she may fly over the petroleum reserve and the Arctic Refuge later in the week.
Interior Department officials note that Haaland will be meeting with stakeholders on all sides of Alaska’s contentious environmental issues: She’s planning talks with officials from the pro-drilling North Slope Borough, along with the Gwich’in Steering Committee, an Indigenous group that opposes oil development in the Arctic Refuge because of the risk it poses to caribou.
Haaland is meeting with the Native-owned NANA Regional Corp., which is examining the potential for mining and road construction in the Ambler district and has expressed openness to such projects. But she’s also meeting with Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Native-run nonprofit in a neighboring region that stridently opposes the road altogether.