After three days of headline-grabbing claims that President Obama’s proposal to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge constitutes a “war on Alaska,” Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) aimed a shot of political payback at hunters, anglers, and outdoor businesses that operate in the lower 48 states.
With a controversial and sweeping amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill that the Senate is considering, Murkowski is pressing her colleagues to vote to open more than 27 million acres of backcountry lands in the lower 48 and Alaska to mining, drilling, and logging. According to an analysis by The Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, this includes nearly 15 million acres managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and more than 12 million acres of wilderness study areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Murkowski’s new move against wilderness lands across the country has sparked concern among sportsmen, veterans, and outdoor users that the Alaska senator intends to use her new role as Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to wage divisive, partisan battles to advance a fossil fuel-focused agenda over the next two years.
“Congress should be seeking a balanced approach to protecting our heritage for future generations, not introducing legislation that would gut protections and give away our public lands to special interests,” said Garret Reppenhagen of the Veterans Voice Foundation.
In remarks that recall the anti-government crusade Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, Murkowski on Sunday described the President’s decision to protect the Arctic Refuge as “a stunning attack on (Alaska’s) sovereignty.” Bundy, who refuses to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees owed to U.S. taxpayers, likewise asserts that the state of Nevada, rather than the U.S. government, has “sovereignty” over American public lands within its borders.
Murkowski, who received more than $590,000 in political contributions from the oil and gas industry in the last two years, claims that protecting the untrammeled Arctic Refuge as wilderness is “a one, two, three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy.”
Though the Arctic Refuge will remain off-limits to oil drilling, tens of millions of acres of U.S. taxpayer-owned land elsewhere in Alaska and off its coasts remain open to oil and gas drilling, including nearly 12 million acres that the Obama Administration recently identified as priority areas for oil and gas development in the western Arctic.
In addition to Senator Murkowski’s amendment, the Senate is also expected to vote Wednesday on a proposal from newly-elected Montana Senator Steve Daines to limit the ability of current and future presidents to protect new national monuments. Like the Murkowski amendment, Daines’ “No New Parks” bill is expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, in part because of the economic blow it would deliver to local communities and the America’s $646 billion outdoor recreation economy.
“Efforts to undermine public land protections are completely out of step with public opinion, which shows an overwhelming support for managing our country’s public lands and waters in a way that sustains local economies,” said Carrie Hamblen of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce.
This article has been updated to reflect an upward revision from the Interior Department on the number of acres that would be opened — from 21 million to 27 million acres of backcountry lands and from 6 million to 12 million acres of wilderness study areas.
Matt Lee-Ashley is a senior fellow and director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow him on Twitter at @MLeeAshley.