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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski on the 2019 Public Lands Act

Air Date: Week of

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Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chairs the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (Photo: Committee on Energy and Natural Resources)

As the Chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has worked for years with Republican and Democratic colleagues to bring together the most sweeping land conservation bill in a decade. The act, signed into law by President Trump on March 12, 2019, designates 1.3 million new acres of wilderness, creates or confirms five new national monuments, protects hundreds of miles of wild and scenic rivers, and also permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Senator Murkowski joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss the highlights of the Dingell Act and what it brings for Alaska residents, as well as the need to act on climate change.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. There is good news for lovers of wild and open spaces. A sweeping public lands conservation bill is now the law of the land.

The John Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act creates or affirms five new national monuments, 1.3 million acres of new wilderness areas, and hundreds of miles of wild and scenic rivers.

The Dingell Act also permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a lifeblood for conservation efforts. Approved by a 92-8 margin in the Senate and untouched by the House in conference, passage of the measure marks a rare bipartisan moment in Washington. The Republican Senate sponsor, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, joins me now. Senator, welcome to Living on Earth!

MURKOWSKI: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CURWOOD: So I know that this 700 page public lands package is the result of a lot of hard work. How long did it take, and when did you know this would work?

MURKOWSKI: Well, you summed it up. It is a lot of hard work. It's a lot of good process. It is something that we've been working on for about five years, I would say, there are some parts of the bill that have been around for probably a decade. So there's been a considerable amount of work that has gone into it. But when you ask the question, how did I know that we were going to be successful with this, I'm a strong believer in good process. And if you have an open process where you have bills that go through the committee process on both the House side and the Senate side, you have the back and forth of amendments, you require folks on the ground to really get the buy-in to advance these land and water and conservation provisions. By the time it gets to the floor, you've built something that truly can be viewed as a consensus package. And that's what we tried to do, working with Senator Cantwell as my ranking member for the past several years. We just took the approach that, look, we're going to have to have some give and some take here. But it's got to be bipartisan, and if we're going to be successful, it has to be bicameral.

CURWOOD: Now, it's hard to pick which child -- but in your view, what are the most notable accomplishments of this bill?

MURKOWSKI: Well, I think there's several things; you certainly have a significant conservation focus with this measure. It is notable that we have permanently authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This is that fund that helps to facilitate not only federal lands, acquisition of federal lands, but we also include some reforms within the LWCF account, that ensure that to the state side programs, whether for state parks or ballparks, that they see additional funding, so the conservation piece with LWCF was significant. I think there are so many measures that help to preserve our historic treasures, whether it's battlegrounds or certain historic trails or parks. From the water side we have water management provisions that, for those in the West are very very significant. I have worked across, four different Congresses now in trying to advance a sportsman's package that allows more hunting and fishing and recreation opportunities for sportsmen on our public lands. And then those provisions that really allow for economic opportunities within a region, whether it's something as simple as being able to access gravel in Alaska's North Slope or the expansion of a small airport in South Dakota, these you might not think, are something that would rise to a level of act of Congress. But when it comes to lands and land conveyances, it comes through our committee and we were able to incorporate some 124 different provisions into one significant package. So as you say, you don't want to pick the favorite children, there's just -- there is a lot of good stuff, a lot of substantive matters, and matters that might not make the front page of the New York Times but for that local newspaper, and for that small little economy, bringing in additional tourists bringing in additional economic opportunity, bringing in additional access -- this is big news.

CURWOOD: Indeed. You know, this omnibus package has provisions, I believe, for just about every state. What about your home state of Alaska, what does this include?


Glaciers like Sawyer Glacier in Alaska’s Tracy Arm fjord are rapidly shrinking because of climate change (Photo: Ian D. Keating, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

MURKOWSKI: One matter that I'm particularly proud of, is what we were able to do to bring about a level of equity for Alaska Native veterans who were serving during the Vietnam War. And while they were over in Vietnam, they were not back home in Alaska during that time period, when, as Alaska Natives, they were allowed to select their native allotments under the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act. And so they missed out on that. So for decades now, they have been trying to address that through an act of Congress. And so finally, after all these years, we have ensured that those veterans who were serving us in Vietnam are able to receive their native allotment that they were promised so many decades ago. We also have a small provision that would provide routing flexibility for an Alaska gas line project, it's effectively a right of way that will allow for greater efficiencies, lower the cost for that time that we're able to get a gas line from the North Slope down to Tidewater, but making sure that you've got your land conveyance issues resolved is an important part of that. More broadly to that, things like a volcano early warning and monitoring act, geologic mapping, making sure that we're understanding our public lands because we have current and up to date maps. So, a whole smorgasbord of different things. But again, initiatives that most would say, well, that's pretty small, but it means a great deal to those local people.

CURWOOD: And by the way, in terms of the Native Claims Settlement Act, where would that land come from?


Climate change has forced recent Iditarod races to change course in order to avoid thinning ice. (Photo: Dana Orlosky, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

MURKOWSKI: Well, much of the federal lands would actually be off limits to the Alaska Native veterans, they would not be able to select in the Tongass National Forest, they would not be able to select in wilderness areas, they would not be able to select up in the 1002 area in Alaska's North Slope, and refuges are also an excepted status. So I can be certain that I will hear from many Alaska Natives who will say, Well, I'm not able to select in my traditional hunting areas, because by federal designation, wilderness has been imposed or it's in the National Forest. But in an effort to make sure that there are no more years that will pass before these veterans are able to receive their allotment, we decided we would work back and forth, we would agree that certain areas would be off limits, but it will be greatly limited in terms of the areas of federal public land that Alaska Natives will be able to select.

CURWOOD: Before you go, Senator, I want to ask you about a big picture item. And that, is where you are on confronting climate change, you know, given that Alaska earns what, 80, 90% of its revenue from oil and gas taxes on the one hand, and then on the other hand, you see Alaska is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet. Also notice that you wrote an op ed recently with Joe Manchin, the democrat from West Virginia about addressing climate change. From your perspective, what could, what should, the United States do now to confront climate change to protect the people of Alaska and the nation -- and for that matter the world?

MURKOWSKI: Well, it is something that we must address. I have long said that climate change is real, it is happening. And if you don't believe that, then I would welcome you to come to Alaska, where you can see the effects of melting permafrost, where you can see how the ice that is typically fast to the shore at this time of year, is simply not there. We just finished up the 1100 mile Iditarod race and part of that race, that dog sled race traditionally goes across a small portion of Norton Sound, but right now, the ice is not stable enough. We've got open areas of water that we have just never seen this time of year before. So it is absolutely there. You mentioned the article that Senator Manchin and I co-authored, the opinion piece. Both of us come from states that are producing states. In Alaska, it's oil; in West Virginia, it's coal. We recognize that we have resources that can benefit Alaskans, West Virginians and Americans. But we also recognize that we have a responsibility, an environmental responsibility, to make sure that as we access our resources, we do it in a way that will limit the environmental impact, that we work daily to reduce emissions. And well, there's a lot of discussion about green new plans, and you know, a decade ago it was all about the Waxman and Markey proposal. What we're trying to shine a light on is what we have been doing as a country to reduce our emissions, and then how are we honestly, realistically and pragmatically going to push that forward and push it forward in a more aggressive manner? And some will say, well, technology is such an easy answer, you need to have a plan. Well, I'll stand before you and tell you that any plan that is going to be successful is going to involve the technologies that allow us to reduce our emissions. Because if you're going to say, well, you just have to stop all production of oil, and that means no more airplanes, no more cars, no more petroleum products; if you're not going to use them, you're going to have to utilize some technologies that will be the alternative to that. So let's talk about what our technologies are, that will help us. So this is something where it's investment in R&D, it is making sure that things like ARPA-E, the "energy think tank," if you will, at DOE is moving forward with appropriate funding, that we're supporting our national labs, that we're working with a private sector in a very collaborative way. There are a host of different ways that we prioritize; it's through legislation, it's through resourcing, and it's through our own personal commitment.

CURWOOD: Lisa Murkowski is Alaska's senior Senator and Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Senator, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

MURKOWSKI: It was great to be with you. Thank you.

 

Links

Listen to our interview with public lands bill cosponsor Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

The Washington Post | “The Senate just passed the decade’s biggest public lands package. Here’s what’s in it.”

Read the full Senate Bill, the “John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act”

The Washington Post | “Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin: It’s time to act on climate change – responsibly”

NYTimes | “The Mush in the Iditarod May Soon Be Melted Snow”

 

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