The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Sally Jewell's nomination to become Interior Secretary by a vote of 19 to 3 on Thursday, after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar agreed to look again at whether to allow a road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the panel's top Republican, has lobbied hard in recent weeks for the construction of a gravel road through the wilderness area to ensure residents of the remote community King Cove have reliable access to a neighboring all-weather airport for medical emergencies. Eleven town residents have died in flights related to medical evacuations since 1980.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service determined in February that such a road would jeopardize the refuge's ecological integrity, Salazar issued a memo Wednesday pledging that the department's assistant secretary of Indian Affairs would both hold additional meetings with King Cove residents in Alaska and prepare a report on "whether and to what extent the road is needed to meet medical emergency requirements of King Cove."
Salazar said in a statement that even though the agency’s decision was based on “exhaustive scientific review and extensive public dialogue,” he now believes “that additional steps and dialogue are appropriate before a final decision is made
Murkowski issued a statement saying, "I look forward to working with Interior to ensure the department fulfills its native trust responsibilities to the people of King Cove.”
The panel's chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) praised Murkowski and Salazar for reaching a deal on the nomination, saying before the vote, "I commend Senator Murkowski and Secretary Salazar for their good faith efforts to resolve this important issue."
But environmentalists decried the agreement, noting that wilderness ranks as an internationally-recognized wetland area. It boasts a three-mile-wide isthmus with lagoons on either side, and is home to the endangered sea duck Steller’s eiders as well as tundra swans, brown bears, foxes and other wildlife. It serves as a migratory stop for 98 percent of the world’s Pacific black brant as the bird makes its way south to Mexico for the winter.
Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark, who headed the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Clinton, said she was “troubled and dismayed that the Obama administration is playing politics with this issue.”
Noting that taxpayers already provided $37.5 million in 1998 to provide the town’s 792 residents with a hovercraft and tele-medicine center to improve their access to medical treatment, Clark added, “I just hope that Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell lives up to her promise to let science drive decisions like this. Because when it comes to building a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, the science is clear: Alaska’s ‘Golden Gravel Road’ is an environmental disaster and fiscal boondoggle the American people can live without.”
Only three Republican senators--John Barrasso (Wyo.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Tim Scott (S.C.)--voted against the Jewell's nomination. All three have criticized the administration's management of federal lands.
Speaking at the committee meeting Thursday, Barrasso said he did not feel Jewell had adequately answered questions regarding her affiliation with the advocacy group National Parks Conservation Association, “And I also remain concerned about her level of experience to lead the Department of Interior.”
A former oil engineer and commercial banker who most recently served as CEO of the consumer co-op Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), Jewell represents an unconventional pick to head the nation's lands agency, but she won plaudits from both parties for both her management skills and work encouraging outdoor recreation and national parks.