Big win for Murkowski: Public lands bill passes Senate

Photo by Liz Ruskin

The U.S. Senate today passed a massive public lands bill, and to the delight of its sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the vote was overwhelming.

“92-8, which is a pretty good tally,” said Murkowski, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources committee.

The bill is an amalgamation of more than 100 bills, requested by 50 senators. Many provisions deal with local issues in Western states, like changing the boundaries of a federal refuge or allowing access to public lands. But the bill creates or extends national programs, too. On the Senate floor before the vote, Murkowski listed some of the specifics.

“We’re creating three new national monuments, two in Kentucky, one in Mississippi, with Congress – Congress! – at the helm of those decisions,” she said. “We’ve got provisions to improve volcano monitoring and warning systems. Important if you’re an aircraft in the sky passing through an area where you’ve had eruptions …. We have provisions that promote wildlife conservation, combat invasive species (and) protect endangered species.”

Creating national monuments is often controversial (particularly when a president does it) but Murkowski negotiated this package with Senate Democrats and with House members of both parties, weeding out the deal-breakers and the poison pills.

One of the bigger Alaska-specific items is a re-opening of the Native allotment program for veterans of the Vietnam War era. That 1906 program gave Native individuals title to 160-acre allotments, often where they hunted or fished. The program ended in 1971, with passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. But Alaska’s congressional delegation has repeatedly tried to extend it for veterans who may have missed the opportunity to apply because they were serving in the military.

The latest extension, pressed by Sen. Dan Sullivan, eliminates the requirement that applicants show they’ve got a personal connection to the land they pick. Veterans, or their heirs, can apply for land in any region of the state, though Democrats insisted that National Forests, refuges and other protected areas aren’t eligible for selection.

The provision could allow as many as 2,800 veterans to apply for an allotment, though Murkowski said the actual number could be substantially lower.

The public lands bill goes next to the House. Its chances there are improved because Murkowski and the top Democrats on her committee already negotiated the details with their House counterparts.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz

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