Alaskans embrace executive 'overreach' on Denali

On the eve of President Barack Obama’s visit to Alaska, state residents and members of its congressional delegation finally found a bit of executive action they could support.

Obama’s announcement Aug. 30 that Mt. McKinley would be officially renamed Denali drew cheers from Alaskans who have long used the Native Athabascan word meaning “the high one” or “the great one” rather than the name assigned by Congress to North America’s tallest peak in 1917.

The reaction in President William McKinley’s home state of Ohio was predictable outrage with Republican presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich and House Speaker John Boehner assailing the act as yet another example of executive “overreach” by Obama.

Taking out the subject matter, the assaults on overreach could have been issued by any member of Alaska’s all-Republican delegation whether it is new Environmental Protection Agency regulations or Obama’s unilateral decision earlier this year to begin managing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain under a wilderness designation.

Changing the coastal plain to a wilderness designation requires an act of Congress, but then again, so does changing the immigration status of millions of illegal aliens, administratively amending the Affordable Care Act to ameliorate some of its most onerous features, or renaming a peak that was designated Mt. McKinley by law.

Alaskan congressional efforts to change the name to Denali have been routinely stymied by the Ohio delegation ever since former Gov. Jay Hammond first petitioned to rename the mountain in 1975.

Citing a 1947 law giving the Interior Secretary the power to resolve geographic naming disputes, Sally Jewell signed the paperwork making it official on Aug. 28.

Lost in all the celebration, however, is the fact that the reason Mt. McKinley survived as the name for so long was because it was dubbed as such by Congress. Obama’s executive decision has no such durability, and the likes of Kasich and Donald Trump vowed to change it back should they win the Oval Office.

It doesn’t seem likely that Kasich or Trump or whoever would find a one-day dustup over a mountain’s name more than a year before the 2016 election worth revisiting, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

The only good thing about most of Obama’s executive orders is that they can be rescinded by the next president, so it is more than a little strange to see some of his most vociferous critics enjoying this one simply because they agree with the outcome.

And speaking of executive overreach justified by popular support, it would have been fun to be a fly on the cabin walls of Air Force One listening to the conversation between Obama and Gov. Bill Walker.

“So, Gov. Walker, how were you able to expand Medicaid?”

“I couldn’t get Republicans to do what I wanted, so I just did it anyway!”

“That’s awesome! It’s what I do all the time. Stupid checks and balances.”

On a more serious note, Obama’s trip was all about climate change as expected, and he found some useful backdrops of glaciers and coastal erosion to make his point. He certainly wasn’t going to be photographed anywhere near an oil rig or a producing mine even though he would have had a chance to visit Red Dog on his trip to Kotzebue and it would have been very educational for him to see how Prudhoe Bay operates in its delicate environment.

That being said, amid a global economic slowdown and a collapse in oil prices, Obama’s record in Alaska isn’t all bad.

Shell is drilling in the Chukchi Sea, ConocoPhillips is drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and will start new production there later this year, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved export permits for the Alaska LNG Project to both free trade and non-free trade countries.

Alaska is one of the few places on Earth where this level of investment and actual drilling is currently happening. Obama’s administration hasn’t necessarily made it easy, but it hasn’t stopped it, either. That’s an executive inaction worth appreciating.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/24/2016 - 9:36am

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