Murkowski blasts federal rejection of refuge road

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski addresses reporters during a news conference following her speech to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Juneau, Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

JUNEAU — The Interior Department’s rejection of a road through a national wildlife refuge that could aid patients in a small Alaska village is emblematic of a bigger problem between the state and federal government, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski told state lawmakers Wednesday.

In December, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a proposed land swap to build a gravel road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which shelters millions of migratory waterfowl.

Residents of King Cove want road access to an all-weather airport at Cold Bay for medical flights.

Murkowski, a Republican, told lawmakers there was more at stake than just a road. She said Jewell’s decision was emblematic of how “the federal government believes that it has to somehow protect Alaska from Alaskans. That we can’t be counted on to be good stewards of the land that we have fought for and we have worked for and we have raised our children up to honor and respect.”

Environmental groups bitterly oppose the road, noting that Congress in 1997 addressed King Cove transportation needs and appropriated $37.5 million for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. They also contend a road is just as likely as air transportation to be closed by the area’s notorious winds and snow.

Murkowski, however, said to applause that the only thing standing in the way of a road is a federal government that says, “somehow, we need to make sure that every bird is protected before the lives of Alaskans will be protected. That’s wrong. That is absolutely wrong.”

Murkowski told reporters later that she would continue to press the case with Jewell and was even considering holding up nominations by the administration.

She said she has heard people in Washington make the argument about the road being closed by snow. “That only happens in Washington, D.C.,” she quipped.

A major theme of Murkowski’s address to a joint session of the Legislature was federal overreach and restrictions.

She told lawmakers the state must be aggressive in developing lands where it has some control, and that she admired lawmakers’ “courage” in passing an oil tax cut last year that she said promotes investment.

She told reporters that the tax cut was about making Alaska competitive with other oil-producing areas. Voters in August will decide whether to repeal the hotly debated tax cut, which critics see as a giveaway to the industry with no guarantee about what Alaska will get in return.

Murkowski said the Legislature has taken serious steps to try to boost oil flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline system and that it is long past time for the federal government to do the same.

While the Interior Department has sold leases in Arctic waters off Alaska, it has not yet shown that it actually wants development to occur, the senator said.

Restrictions on roads in Tongass National Forest are choking the last of southeast Alaska’s timber industry and limiting the ability to build out renewable energy resources, Murkowski added.

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