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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Alaska the Powerful

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Joel Southern fields questions from Steve Curwood on the recent rise of Alaskan House and Senate members to key positions on committees influencing environmental legislation.


CURWOOD: Of course, the presidential elections aren't the only contest this year. Democrats are also hoping to recapture the US House and Senate. And part of the Democratic appeal for support stresses what they call the anti-environmental record of House and Senate Republicans. Perhaps the best example of the mood of the current Congress can be seen in the delegation from Alaska. Both senators and its lone Congressman are staunch Conservatives who are skeptical of environmental regulation, and who labored for years as part of a vocal minority. When the GOP took control of Congress last year, the tiny Alaska delegation gained tremendous clout thanks to seniority. Don Young became head of the House Resources Committee. And Frank Merkowski now runs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the Senate side. And next year, if Republicans keep control of the Senate, Ted Stevens is expected to ascend to the chair of the power Senate Appropriations Committee. Joel Southern covers Capitol Hill for Alaska Public Radio. He says Alaska's Congressional trio has at least one thing in common. They are...

SOUTHERN: Very ardently pro-development, all 3 of them. What is it, about 67% of Alaska is controlled in one form or another by the Federal Government. So they scrap and fight every way they can to make sure that there are no further restrictions in their point of view on Alaska resources.

CURWOOD: Now what about Ted Stevens? He's your state's senior Senator. He's pretty high in terms of seniority?

SOUTHERN: He is. And I believe the exact numbers are ninth overall in seniority in the US Senate, and third ranking Republican. He is a man with a sometimes notorious temper. He'll tell you that he never loses his temper; he always knows where it is. And he uses it to great effect. And a lot of people are just worn down sometimes bearing the brunt of that or fearing it. And he gets his way a lot.

CURWOOD: What are the key things on Senator Stevens' agenda when it comes to the environment? What's he most concerned with?

SOUTHERN: He is concerned that the timber industry is fading away there. He was an important player back when the timber industry really got up and going back in the 50s, and over the years has been a good friend to it. Some people don't like that friendship, but he certainly thinks it's important. He is also Chairman of the Senate Oceans and Fisheries Subcommittee, and he's working to reauthorize the Magnausen Fisheries Act, emphasizing cutting down waste and by-catch out in the oceans and conserving fish stocks and marine stocks generally.

CURWOOD: In the House side we have Don Young. He's Chairman of the Resources Committee, and usually painted as someone who's against environmental regulation and pro-development. Is that fair?

SOUTHERN: That is absolutely fair. He does not abide people he considers fools, and a lot of those fools in his mind abide in the Park Service, in the Fish and Wildlife Service. He thinks they're just too restrictive on natural resource development, natural resource extraction, and is constantly doing battle with the Interior Department over those issues.

CURWOOD: Young has some pretty good conservative credentials, and you'd think that the House leadership would like him. But I understand that Speaker Gingrich has been trying to rein him in. Is that accurate, and if so why?

SOUTHERN: Speaker Gingrich has a long history of being conservationist and concerned about wildlife issues. Congressman Young has some very different points of view, I think, with the speaker and with moderate Republicans about those issues, and we could see, maybe, environmental civil war between Republicans because there are very strong differences of opinion, especially between more moderate members and western conservatives.

CURWOOD: Now you go over to the Senate side and the same committee in the Senate -- over there of course it's called Energy and Natural Resources -- is also run by an Alaskan, Frank Merkowski.


CURWOOD: You'd think that with an Alaskan who's very pro-development sitting in that seat that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be open to drilling sooner or later.

SOUTHERN: Well, the issue is much bigger than Frank Merkowski's ability just to try to ramrod it through. It's a very strong, symbolic issue for environmental groups. And it's something that seems to resonate with a lot of people out in the country. There have been recent polls that show that, you know, anywhere from a strong 50% up to 70% of people really are pretty queasy about the prospect of going into this coastal plain area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and drilling for oil.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that Alaskans pretty much favor the notion of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Is that right?

SOUTHERN: Probably up in the range of, I don't know, 70, maybe 80%.

CURWOOD: What about other issues such as fishing and timber? Is there that kind of unanimity there? And how does Merkowski play those issues?

SOUTHERN: Well that's different, and I think especially in southeast Alaska you have to remember that southeast Alaska, the panhandle of Alaska is pretty much one big national forest, the Tsongas National Forest. And there are differences of opinion in that long stretch of forest about whether there should be the presence of the timber industry as there has been in the past. There are certainly some towns where they're very timber industry dependent, and others are staking their future and their fortunes on fishing and recreation and tourism, and that has caused conflicts, as Senator Merkowski and the other members of the delegation have tried to go in and do what they consider important and necessary to keep the timber industry there. They found people protesting and saying look, that is not where we are any more; we need to get beyond this. We need to find other ways to diversify and make a living.

CURWOOD: It seems unprecedented to have one state with such a strong influence in a particular area. Do you think they have any kind of strategic plan among them now, saying hey, look, we've got the leadership of both these committees and we're going to have a powerful senator, that we could perhaps prioritize some certain difficult things and push them through? Or do you think they're just going to play it as it lays?

SOUTHERN: Well, I think they have to a certain extent. Certainly pushing forward with the development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, that's number one priority I'd say. They also had an issue of lifting a 22-year-old ban on exports of Alaska north slope oil; that has come to completion, been signed into law now, and that is an accomplishment they can point to in the past year. I think Tsongas is probably second or third, depending on how you want to rank those 3. And they just have a long list of complaints about over-regulation, onerous regulation they think the Federal Government has imposed on Alaska land use. And there's more of that to come.

CURWOOD: Joel Southern heads the Washington Bureau for Alaska Public Radio. He spoke to us from the nation's capitol.



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