Interior Secretary Sally Jewell Defends Federal Land Management

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today defended the federal government’s land management and brushed off calls from legislators in Alaska, and other states, to seize federal lands.

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Jewell spoke at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, to a standing room only crowd, many from a nearby conference of the outdoor recreation industry. It was a room strongly in favor of preserving federal land. Jewell urged them to make their views known at every level of government.

“These are lands that belong to all American people. Just because they’re in the boundary of a state does not mean they belong to the residents of that state. They belong to all American people,” she said.

The Alaska House last week passed a bill demanding the federal government turn over its lands in Alaska to the state. Similar measures have passed in other western states.  Speaker of the Alaska House Mike Chenault, like other Republican legislators, says it’s a just cause.

“I’m not afraid of a fight, and I’m not afraid of doing what I think is right,” he said, in supporting the bill in Juneau.

Jewell doesn’t sound too worried.

“While there has been a fair amount of rhetoric and even some laws passed in state legislatures, there’s none of them that have been found to be constitutional with regard to a takeover of federal public lands by states,’ she said. “So there’s a lot of talk but there hasn’t been a lot of action.”

The talk in Alaska grew louder this winter, when the Obama Administration announced a series of anti-development measures in the state. They include withdrawing areas of the off-shore Arctic from oil and gas lease sales, and recommending Congress protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. Alaska’s top officials blew a gasket. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the Obama administration was trying to keep Alaska as a pretty snow globe no one can touch.

Jewell, after her speech, bristled at the suggestion she’s locking up Alaska.

“I think if you look at our actions in Alaska, you will see that we are actually facilitating safe and responsible development, recognizing that in a place like the Arctic, nobody wants to screw that up,” she said.

Jewell says much of the mining in Alaska in on federal land. She pointed to her department’s work with Shell on permits to drill in the Chukchi Sea. Plus, she says they’ve allowed oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve, although with conditions some Alaskans say are onerous. Jewell says she’s sympathetic to Alaska’s budget woes, but she says it’s wrong to blame the federal government. The problem is oil prices, the secretary says, and Alaska’s dependence on that one commodity.

“I do think if I was in Gov. Walker’s situation, I’d be looking to diversify my sources of revenue for the state,” she said.

With the Alaska Legislature scheduled to adjourn Sunday, that doesn’t look likely.