Alaska Journal of Commerce: Interior budget bill takes another shot at King Cove road

Alaska is a big part of the $32 billion bill headed to the Senate floor to fund the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service.

That shouldn’t be surprising considering Sen. Lisa Murkowski chairs the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee that drafted the legislation.

The wide-ranging funding bill passed the Appropriations Committee June 16 on a 16-14 vote without Democrat support.

“What we’re trying to do is direct federal resources where they’re needed,” Murkowski said during a June 19 teleconference with Alaska media.

Overall, the $32 billion in funding for fiscal year 2017 would be about $340 million less than 2016, according to the committee report.

On the Interior Department, Murkowski included language to initiate a new land swap between the State of Alaska and the federal government that would allow the state to finish construction of an emergency road between the Alaska Peninsula communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.

She has led the Alaska congressional delegation’s push to get the link completed, particularly since Interior Secretary Sally Jewell blocked a land transfer for that purpose late in 2013.

The land swap is needed because 11-mile unfinished section of the longer gravel road would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, where development of any kind is prohibited.

Jewell ultimately rejected the previous land trade of about 43,000 acres of state and Alaska Native corporation land for 206 acres of Izembek territory — included in a 2009 omnibus public lands bill signed by President Barack Obama — after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service environmental impact statement determined the swap would negatively impact migratory bird habitat in the refuge and chose the “no action” alternative.

Last September, U.S. District Court of Alaska Judge H. Russel Holland ruled in favor of the Interior Department decision in a lawsuit filed by King Cove Alaska Natives over the land swap rejection.

According to the language in the bill, the land swap must be completed within 180 days of the legislation taking effect. With it being a funding bill and the federal 2017 fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2016, that deadline would be in late March 2017. It also state’s that the land swap would “not constitute a major federal action for purposes of the National Environmental Policy Act,” meaning an environmental impact statement would not be necessary.

Any difference in the appraised value of the federal and state land up for trade could be resolved with a direct payment by the State of Alaska to the federal government or through inclusion of more federal land. An appraiser would be selected jointly by the state and the Interior secretary.

The 315,000-acre Izembek Refuge surrounds the village of Cold Bay and is home to entire populations of some waterfowl species, such as the Pacific black brant, at certain times of the year.

The road would give King Cove residents in urgent need of medical care a reliable link in bad weather to the large World War II-era airport at Cold Bay.

Murkowski said the previous deal that was rejected by Jewell is “off the table.” The latest appropriations bill directs the Interior Department to work out a deal of equal land value with the state.

By stating that the land exchange and construction of the road “is in the public interest,” the bill appears to take any department discretion off the table as well.

“It’s fully my intent to hold the Interior Department and the secretary — hold their feet to the fire and facilitate this transfer,” Murkowski said.

The bill would also resurrect the Alaska Land Use Council. First established through the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, the council was allowed to sunset in 1990.

According to Murkowski, bringing back the council should help alleviate the often contentious working relationship between the state and federal agencies and give Alaskans “a stronger voice in the decisions made about the lands” in their state.

Implementation of the EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule would also be delayed by a year if the bill passes. The Obama administration and supporters of the rule, which is currently suspended in federal court after states sued to stop its implementation, contend it would clarify what waters the EPA has jurisdiction to regulate.

Opponents argue it is another example of “federal overreach” that would inflate the agency’s authority and stymie development projects nationwide.Murkowski said the one-year hold is better than nothing.

“We’re kind of counting on the courts here to recognize that this is a broad expansion of EPA’s authority to regulate under the Clean Water Act and to help us ensure that EPA is not allowed to proceed with this,” she said. “So, do I wish that it could have been a permanent moratorium, or ban? Certainly. Is a one-year delay what we were able to gain support for? Yeah, that’s where we are.”

Indian Health Service funding for some Alaska-specific programs was also increased in the bill.

It directs $11 million — $7 million more than 2016 — to the Village Built Clinics Program, which funds health care infrastructure in Alaska villages.

Another $10 million is set aside for the Small Ambulatory Clinics Program to fund clinics in the extremely remote Western Alaska villages of Gambell and Savoonga.

Nationwide funding for IHS drug and alcohol and behavioral health treatment efforts is also upped by $37 million in the bill to more than $240 million.

Pertinent to Southeast Alaska, the bill prohibits the Forest Service from finalizing the Tongass National Forest Land Use Plan before conducting an inventory of harvestable timber in the 17 million-acre forest.

The Forest Service’s preferred management plan for the Tongass, which is going through the public process, calls for a harvest transition from old growth to young, or second growth, timber in the coming years. The Forest Service is not opposed to the inventory measure, according to Murkowski.

“It’s not about saying we don’t want to do the transition; it is about ensuring that the transition is based on a full and complete understanding of what we have and the Forest Service recognizes that,” Murkowski said.

The bill provides $77 million for federal forest inventories nationwide, including portions of Interior Alaska.

Conservation groups have lauded the Tongass transition as a major step to protect salmon habitat in the forest.

Timber industry representatives in the state have said they are not opposed to a transition, but emphasize that it needs to happen slowly, over decades, to allow young growth stands to mature. Until then they continue to push for some old growth harvest.

Link to the original article: http://www.alaskajournal.com/2016-06-22/interior-budget-bill-takes-another-shot-king-cove-road#.V3LR0fkrK71

By:  Elwood Brehmer

Related Issues: Alaska Natives & Rural Alaska