How Murkowski Played Dealmaker to Get Controversial Lands Package

The 500-page package Sen. Lisa Murkowski helped negotiate has something for everybody – Grazing rights, mining, logging. But also: Legal protections on a million acres of federal land. Many of the 55 bills it draws from are of great interest to a few communities but lack national standing. In a Congress that passes very little legislation, Murkowski and other negotiators had to assemble an irresistible package, then attach it to legislation that was sure to move. Murkowski says they had hundreds of leftover bills to choose from, some dating back years.

Download Audio

“So it was just, let’s take all this stuff in the basket and dump it on the table and then figure out how we can make a package, that has some conservation, it has some development of our public lands so we can work toward jobs and production, and just making sure that it’s good solid policy,” she said.

It was a massive balancing act. It had to protect enough high-value lands without triggering a firestorm of opposition from pro-development forces. And it had to allow substantial development on public lands without angering environmental groups and lawmakers who are sympathetic to them. With Senate natural Resources Chairman Mary Landrieu distracted by what proved to be a losing fight for re-election, Murkowski worked on the package with the leaders of the House natural resources committee.

“Finesse,” Murkowski says. “It took finesse.”

It includes the priorities of powerful Western lawmakers and other items to please lawmakers in states with very little public land in flux. Democratic Sen. Al Franken, of Minnesota, for instance, has a provision to transfer government land to a school district in his home state. It’s barely more than a single acre, but his constituents have been striving to get it for a decade. And, Murkowski says, the package had to satisfy the leaders of the Armed Services committees in both houses, to gain their support and confidence that the package wouldn’t sink the Defense bill.

“There was no way we were going to be able to cram this onto their bill. They needed to be part and parcel of this,” Murkowski says.

Some critics grumble that it’s the result of secretive horse-trading. Murkowski, though, says most of the bills had passed the House or Senate before succumbing to congressional inertia. Opponents on the right have focused on the new wilderness designations, complaining of a land grab. Murkowski points out the legislation also removes the threat of wilderness designation from thousands of acres that were under review.

Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, says he’s pleased the bill transfers 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska corporation, mostly for logging. He’s not happy the bill also puts 150,000 acres of the Tongass off limits to development, but Graham says that’s a ransom he’s willing to pay to save Southeast logging jobs. He says Murkwoski did the best she could.

” I recognize that there’s a lot of people who don’t like parts of the bill, but that’s her job is to try to balance all these things and with a contentious issue like land in the Tongass you’re not going to please everybody,” he said.

When the Senate re-convenes in January, the Republicans will be in charge, and Sen. Murkowski will chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Bentley Johnson, an advocate for public land at the National Wildlife Federation, says he hopes this bill is a forerunner of the kind of work Murkowski can produce as chairman.

“We certainly hope so. We think she’s shown that she can be pragmatic, that she can start with those priorities that there’s a lot of agreement, on both sides of the aisle,” Johnson said.

Other environmental groups condemn the bill, but Johnson calls the compromise a political breakthrough.

“In the past couple congresses, ideology has really taken over and prevented good public lands and natural resources bills from being passed,” he said.

In a polarized Congress, Murkowski is often seen as a moderate, but not when it comes to Alaska resource development. Johnson says if Murkowski pushes hot-button Alaska issues too hard, he predicts she’ll alienate colleagues and produce more stalemate.

“If she tackles, trying to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, right of the bat, that’s really going to divide people. That’s going to bring out the big guns,” he said, adding that he’d say the same about Murkowski’s goal of a road between King Cove and Cold Bay.

Murkowski says she doesn’t intend to use her chairmanship as just a soapbox for ideology.

“What I want to try to do is build something, and build something that is going to be more than a message but build something that is going to be passed and signed into law. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish here. And I think this is kind of the glimpse as to how we’re going to try to proceed,” she said. It will, she acknowledged, require working with lawmakers of both parties and winning presidential support.

The bill easily passed the House last week. In the defense portion, the bill holds military pay increases to a 1 percent cap, trims the housing allowance and adds a $3 pharmacy co-pay.