Young hits Interior Secretary with complaints over Alaska lands

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Don Young lobbed several accusations of mismanagement at Interior Secretary Sally Jewell Tuesday in a House hearing, questioning the basis and process behind decisions related to predator management, protecting polar bears and special environmental zones that could cause problems for a proposed mine project.

With only five minutes to speak and several issues he wanted to raise, Young didn't wait around for much in the way of answers from Jewell, interrupting most of her attempts to speak at the hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee.

Young pressed Jewell over an ongoing dispute between the state and the Interior Department over wildlife management, which Young argued is in violation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

The Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft rule in January that overrides state game management plans with federal priorities, aligning with a similar National Park Service rule that was finalized in October.

Young said the agencies justify their actions as allowed under the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, a bill that Young sponsored in 1997.

"I'm the original sponsor of that act, and I know the law clearly states ANILCA takes priority over any conflicts in refuges in Alaska," Young said.

"Now, why is Fish and Wildlife doing this? They want us to go to court?" he asked.


Last week, Young succeeded in passing an amendment that would strike down the Alaska wildlife management rules from both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. The language is similar to that in a related bill offered by Sen. Dan Sullivan, which stopped the Fish and Wildlife Service bill, but not the already enacted National Park Service Rule. Sullivan's amendment passed out of committee in January, but has not yet hit the Senate floor.

"The proposed regulations, as currently written, will fundamentally alter not only how national wildlife refuges and the fish, wildlife, and habitats on them will be managed, but will also change the relationship of the Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska from one of cooperation to servitude," Young said on the House floor Friday.

At the hearing Tuesday, Young also asked Jewell about two "Areas of Critical Environmental Concern" that the Interior Department is considering in Eastern Interior Alaska, though the exchange didn't generate much information.

"Where did those restrictions come [from] and what were they based on?" Young asked, noting restrictions that could hamper the proposed Donlin Gold mine's efforts to build a natural gas pipeline to bring power to the project.

Jewell noted that the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management is "updating its resource management" plans, but ultimately said she wasn't sure what Young was talking about.

The department issued the draft in 2012, and released new information on potential additions to the ACECs in January 2015. But the proposed revisions to the resource management plan have not yet been issued, nor finalized.

Young's spokesman Matt Shuckerow provided two letters from the Alaska Miners Association -- in 2014 and 2015 -- related to the proposed resource management plan changes.

The Alaska Miners Association argued that the designations are unwarranted, and that concerns about caribou calving don't justify restrictive policies.

After that, Young switched focus to the Interior Department's decision to set aside more than 175,000 acres of habitat for polar bears. The decision, originally halted by a district court, was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Monday.

"Did you consult with any Native groups up there?" Young asked Jewell.

Jewell began to say that "the work on the polar bears was largely done at the end of the prior administration" and eventually noted that the decision was "based on science and work with the people," though Young interrupted her.

"You did not consult with the people" in coastal villages, Young said.

The case against the Interior Department was brought by the state, oil and gas associations, and several Alaska Native corporations and villages that are particularly concerned about the ability to drill in the North Slope waters.

But the legal fight over the designation was not based on the agency's inclusion of Native groups, and instead was focused on the Fish and Wildlife Service's justification for including a small part of the habitat, and for how it responded to comments provided by the state.

"The district court found fault with FWS's justification because it incorporated by reference its responses to Alaska's comments contained in the Final Rule rather than including all of those responses verbatim in the letter to the Governor," Appeals Court Judge Mary M. Schroeder wrote in the ruling Monday.

The ruling noted that the decision came after several public hearings and two comment periods, during which the agency received more than 100,000 comments.

Matt Shuckerow, Young's spokesman, said Young has heard complaints for years from Native groups about a lack of substantive consultation from the Interior Department regarding the polar bear rule.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.