Murkowski leads major lands bill through Senate
Sen. Lisa Murkowski was happy to talk with reporters after shepherding the first omnibus lands bill package through the Senate in years with overwhelming support.
The U.S. Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act Feb. 12 on a 92-8 vote.
The legislation addresses a plethora of “small matters that in local communities can really make a significant difference,” Murkowski said in a conference call with Alaska reporters.
“When we can come together on a bipartisan basis — move something out of the Senate 92-8 — it is a pretty significant win,” she said. “I think it’s a pretty historic day really when it comes to our public lands.”
The Natural Resources Management Act is a compilation of about 120 individual lands bills dealing with issues nationwide. It’s the first public lands package to pass the Senate in five years, according to Murkowski.
While much of what it deals with are “small, parochial” matters, as Murkowski characterized them, it also permanently reauthorizes the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund and declares an “open unless closed” policy for recreation activities on most federal lands.
Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced the legislation Jan. 9.
Using military training exercises on Bureau of Land Management tracts in the Interior as an example, she said areas that need to be closed to hunting and other activities for such a reason will only have access restricted for specific periods and not without explanation. The process for notifying the public about a given federal lands closure will be spelled out in regulations.
“Our public lands are going to be designated as open for public use unless specifically closed, so this is significant in that regard,” Murkowski said.
The bill also reforms and makes permanent the longstanding and popular Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Congress established the LWCF in 1964 as a way to offset impacts from oil and gas development. Revenue from federal offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico is allocated to the fund and used for land and water restoration, parks, trails and other conservation projects across the country.
The LWCF has funneled approximately $3.9 billion to support more than 40,000 projects covering nearly 2.4 million acres in every county in the country since its inception, according to the Interior Department.
The National Geologic Mapping program, run by the U.S. Geological Survey, is also reauthorized for five years under the bill.
Specifically to Alaska, the Natural Resources Management Act is an attempt to resolve several long unresolved issues.
Notably, it would allow for Alaska Native veterans of the Vietnam War to finally receive the allotment entitlements they missed out on selecting when Native lands claims were settled in the early 1970s and they were serving overseas.
Murkowski said the issue applies to roughly 300 individuals and the bill lays out a specific course by which they can select their 160-acre allotments.
“Now our Alaska veterans will be able to submit their selections in a very considered process, but one that will allow them to move forward,” she said.
It provides a way for eligible family members of deceased veterans to select allotments as well. The provisions in that portion of the Natural Resources Management Act were largely introduced by Sen. Dan Sullivan in the Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act he introduced in the last Congress.
Sullivan thanked Murkowski and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for working on the issue and Rep. Don Young for gaining support to resolve it in the House in a Feb 12 statement from his office.
“For decades, a group of special Alaska veterans have suffered an injustice due to their service during the Vietnam War. My colleagues and I today took a significant step towards righting this wrong and ensuring Alaska Native vets have an opportunity to finally receive the land allotment they’ve previously been denied,” Sullivan said.
The bill additionally includes provisions to provide flexibility for securing a natural gasline right-of-way through the eastern edge of Denali National Park and Preserve and requires the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service to study the impacts federal land acquisitions have had on Chugach Alaska Corp.’s ability to develop its land and come up with options for potential land exchanges with the Alaska Native regional corporation.
It also repeals a federal prohibition on exporting unprocessed timber from lands conveyed to the Kake Tribal Corp, among other things.
Today, much of the timber harvested in Southeast is exported directly to China.
Murkowski said she and former ranking Energy and Natural Resources Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington started working with Natural Resource Committee leaders in the House last year to gain support for the omnibus bill and make sure it gets to President Donald Trump’s desk.
“Because of the way we handled this process — working again across the aisle and across the chambers — I’m feeling very good about its prospects on the House side,” Murkowski said.