Aleutians monument fought as threat, derided as ‘straw man’

Alaska Rep. Don Young. (File photo)
Alaska Rep. Don Young. (File photo)

Alaska Congressman Don Young and other Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee this morning attacked the idea that President Obama might create a marine national monument around the Aleutian Islands, with unknown effects on the fishing industry. But the administration has given no sign it’s considering the notion.

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At a subcommittee hearing, Congressman Young said a marine national monument around the Aleutians would be terrible for the fishing industry.

“I’ve watched this over and over: The creeping cancer of the federal government overreaching,” Young said. “The worst managers of any resource is the federal government. They do not manage. They preclude.”

The idea of protecting the waters of the Aleutian Chain came from environmentalist and retired UAA professor Rick Steiner. Last year, he proposed a massive marine sanctuary, covering all the federal waters of Bristol Bay and thousands of miles of the Bering Sea. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration killed the idea, saying it lacked local support. That seemed to be the end of it, except that Steiner launched an online petition telling President Obama he should create an Aleutian national monument instead. (Under the Antiquities Act, the president can just declare a monument on his own.) Steiner’s plea to Obama, on thepetitionsite.com, has attracted more than 100,000 supporters, many from foreign countries. Steiner was not invited to the hearing to defend his idea.

Chris Oliver, director of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, was an invited witness. He says his council is doing a great job preserving Bering Sea resources, including fish habitat, in part by closing vast areas to fishing.

“We have 1.3 million square nautical miles that we manage,” he told the panel, “and two-thirds of that area, about 665,000 square miles of it, is closed to all or most fishing activities.”

The top Democrat on the Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee, Jared Huffman of California, says the fist-shaking and the mobilized defense are unnecessary.

“We do a lot of straw-man chasing here in the committee,” Huffman said. “We will hear rumors and sometimes even concoct threats towards industries and then have entire hearings that are about knocking down those straw men.”

Huffman then turned to the only Administration witness, Holly Bamford, an acting assistant secretary at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Q:To your knowledge, is the Administration considering a national monument designation in the Aleutians?

A: I have not been part of those discussions. To my knowledge, no.

Q:And I’ve seen no evidence of it either, but it’s one of many (politically) usefull straw men that we see.

It’s not clear that a marine monument would be closed to commercial fishing. Bamford says that would depend on the management plan.

The president’s power to protect areas of land and water by declaring them National Monuments disturbs the Alaska delegation to Congress. All three lawmakers have proposed bills to curtail that authority. One by Young would ban any marine national monument off Alaska’s shores.

At the hearing, Young denied the threat to the Aleutians is a political figment and predicted the administration will declare monument status for the area.

“They say it’s a straw man. Baloney,” Young said. “I know when they propose something it’s going to be attempted by.”

Asked about the president’s intentions for the Aleutians, a White House spokeswoman said she has no announcements to make at this time.

As for Steiner, he still says Alaska’s federal waters deserve some form of permanent protection, but he got no response from the White House to his petition. He says he did meet with one Administration official this spring who advised him not to expect anything so bold.

“But we remain hopeful they may reconsider,” Steiner said by email.