Murkowski Set to Score Another Controversial Win for Alaska

The senator is muscling through a provision to privatize thousands of acres of Alaskan federal land as part of a bipartisan lands package that could soon become law.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Feb. 6, 2019, 8 p.m.

The senior senator from The Last Frontier is poised to notch another big parochial win.

Lisa Murkowski, the maverick three-term Republican, is shepherding a sprawling, bipartisan lands package through the Senate floor this week that includes a bill the Alaska delegation has coveted for 15 years.

The provision, dubbed the Alaska Native Vietnam Era Veterans Land Allotment, paves the way for privatization of thousands of acres of federal land by allowing Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans and their heirs to apply for property allotments.

More than 60 percent of Alaska, roughly 225 million acres, is federal land, according to the Congressional Research Service. The bill builds off legislation dating back to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Murkowski said the legislation will redress a historical inequity.

“We have upheld our promise, a promise made decades ago, to Alaska Natives who served during the Vietnam War,” she said. “During the time of their service, they basically missed out on their opportunity to receive the land allotments that had been promised to them by the federal government.”

The Alaskan delegation stresses the boon that the bill will provide to Native communities.

“It’s valuable for Alaska Natives. It’s their land,” Republican Rep. Don Young told National Journal. “The delegation has always been pretty united. We all represent the same people. Even when we had [former Democratic Sen.] Mark Begich in there, we all pretty much worked together.”

But Murkowski’s ability to lock in place the legislation, which environmentalists largely if not uniformly oppose, also speaks to her adept maneuvering amid a toxic political environment on Capitol Hill. This bill is just the most recent in a long line of parochial achievements for the Alaska Republican since President Trump took office two years ago.

Murkowski ensured the Republican tax package in late 2017 opened the door for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move that made environmental groups and Democrats apoplectic. The Bureau of Land Management is now conducting a series of meetings on the ANWR environmental-impact statement, and the agency could conduct lease sales this year.

The Interior Department delivered the senator another win in early January last year. Then-Secretary Ryan Zinke signed off on a deal to sanction a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the remote village of King Cove in southern Alaska. Several months later, Murkowski lauded an agreement brokered between the Forest Service and Alaska to retool the Roadless Rule, a regulation that prevents road construction on public lands.

She also helped to push Alaska Native Tara Sweeney through the confirmation process last year as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

Now, Murkowski, as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is pushing through a complex bill with buy-in from across the aisle and the Capitol. And as a testament to her clout on Capitol Hill, Senate leadership is allowing her to quarterback the floor process just months after voting “no” on embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The lands package, formally called the Natural Resources Management Act, is a roughly 700-hundred page bill containing a laundry list of land transfers throughout the country and other provisions to broaden access to public lands for sportsmen.

Critically, the bill would also permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that helps federal and state authorities acquire land for parks, nature trails, and other recreational projects. Congress first made the LWCF law in 1965, but the program has been expired since late September.

The legislation is drawing broad environmental support. Drew McConville, a top policy official at The Wilderness Society, said the package would extend conservation protections for 2 million acres of public land.

“There’s a lot of momentum behind the package. With such strong bipartisan support in the Senate, I think we’ll see it move relatively quickly,” McConville said. “We’re feeling pretty optimistic.”

Still, McConville and other environmentalists are quick to point to their opposition for the Alaska Native bill.

“We do not support every provision in the package including the highly controversial [Alaska Native Vietnam Era Veterans Land Allotment],” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said in a letter to senators Wednesday. “Despite our concerns, we urge you to SUPPORT S. 47 and oppose any amendments undermining conservation. We will strongly consider including votes on this bill in the 2019 Scorecard.”

The LCV annual scorecard is a benchmark evaluation of voting records for lawmakers.

McConville said the language should be reworked. “There are better, more targeted ways to solve the problem that Senator Murkowski is trying to solve or claims to be trying to solve here,” he said.

But Murkowski is bullish on clean passage in the upper chamber and a rubber stamp in the House, despite grumblings from fellow Republicans. Sen. Mike Lee's spokesman Conn Carroll said the Utah Republican wants to try to tack on a bill to exclude his state from the Antiquities Act, a statute that allows a president to designate national monuments.

Lee torpedoed expedited passage of the legislation in the waning days of the 115th Congress, and the inclusion of the Antiquities Act bill would be a nonstarter for Democrats. This go-round, Senate leadership carved out enough floor time to steamroll objections and ensure poison pills are not added.

House members, meanwhile, are awaiting Senate action before weighing in, as Murkowski noted.

“I know that we’ve got several members that would like to have amendments. We want to find a way to accommodate those, but that’s going to take a level of cooperation,” Murkowski said. “We may be able to take some by unanimous consent or by roll-call vote. But there are also going to be some that we’re just not going to be able to accept at this time on this package.”

Fossil-fuel supporters and Alaskan advocates for land privatization have staunchly supported Murkowski’s platform over the past two years. And even opponents, like McConville, acknowledge her success.

“She’s been racking up things on her priority list for sure,” he said.

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