Young hosts Western Caucus on Alaska trip
Rep. Don Young brought four U.S. representatives and their staffs on an Alaska tour Aug. 15-20 to show them firsthand Alaska’s economy at work on the North Slope, the Fort Knox Mine near Fairbanks and elsewhere.
When the visitors sat down to hear from industry leaders on Aug. 17, Reps. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., Daniel Newhouse, R-Wash., Aumua Amata, R-American Samoa, and Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., heard consistently of regulatory changes wanted most:
• Certain agencies and officials consistently hold up regulatory processes and drag out the “human costs” of economic development in Alaska.
• Streamlining is needed to eliminate contradictory agency rules and a more centralized oversight in what is now a fragmented, multi-agency process, perhaps from Congress itself.
• Eliminate some time, and therefore certain expenses, it takes to get a project to its start date.
The visit was organized by Young, with the Western Caucus Foundation convening a roundtable discussion on Aug. 17 at the Dena’ina Center.
These included state and federal officials and industry representatives for oil and gas, mining, timber, fisheries and Native affairs.
Sarah Erkmann Ward of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association urged the lawmakers to give better investment certainty to Alaska’s oil and gas industries through cutting red tape in the permitting process on federal lands.
The oil industry suffers the most from the fragmented, contradictory regulatory process, Ward said. This deters investment because companies won’t know ahead of time if they are sinking money into a project that will proceed forward in a timely manner.
Nicole Kimball, vice president of Pacific Seafood Processors Association, said that industry “shares a lot in common with oil and gas companies” when it comes to regulations.
“The Endangered Species Act severely restricts access, particularly smaller boats and therefore smaller businesses,” Kimball said.
The ESA is used to limit access to areas even before an animal is listed as endangered, she said. She wanted to see more local voice control in fisheries management issues as opposed to “cookie-cutter management” from far-off federal agencies.
“Alaska’s famous fisheries management success stems from a transparent regulatory council process” that gives citizens and local knowledge the power over fisheries, she said.
Examples of these are the International Pacific Halibut Commission, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the Alaska Board of Fisheries and its stakeholder advisory committees around the state.
During the timber-U.S. Forestry Service segment of the discussion, Young repeatedly challenged the presentations by Chris Maisch, director of Alaska Division of Forestry, and Beth Pendleton, regional forester with the US. Forest Service, over being slow to offer timber sales to the flailing logging industry. On State of Alaska forested lands, 65 percent of available 12.1 million board feet is put on the market, Young has said. But the U.S. Forest Service in the Tongass National Forest has sold only about 12 percent of its 267 million board feet annual allowable cut.
Maisch and Pendleton explained the regulatory process for putting young, medium and old growth trees up for bid to logging companies. Currently, 35 million board feet is under contract, Pendleton said.
“Why so little?” Young asked. “The reason I bring that up is that at one time there were 1,300 jobs in Ketchikan, Wrangle, Sitka — once viable towns like Craig and Klawock now no longer are because you haven’t allowed the timber to be harvested. These communities are in dire straits. They are dying.”
Pendleton responded that by law, the Forest Service timber sales are required to be economic. More timber sales are coming up that will go on the market and create jobs.
But Congress ultimately decides how money gets spent by the Forest Service and a lot of the budget is eaten up in fighting fires the past several years, she told the representatives. The “Roadless Rule” of wilderness designations also dictates certain closures in forests.
Young made an aside speech to his colleagues about “hundreds of miles of old logging roads put to sleep by the Forest Service” that could be used by recreational users and sport fishermen to access wilderness areas.
“They used our tax dollars to build and then closed the roads to the public,” Young said.
“You can ask anyone in Juneau what they think of the Forestry Service, and they will tell you. It is not positive,” Young continued, addressing Pendleton and Maisch. “That tells me you’ve failed.”
But Young noted that the problem didn’t originate during this presidential administration, or the previous one. A state timber sale takes abut 18 months to plan and offer, as opposed to five years for the USFS, largely due to NEPA.
“It took 30 years to get to this point, and many administrations,” he said.
Maisch pointed to obstructing National Environmental Protection Act requirements on the age maturity of old growth cuts and other “cumbersome laws that prevail on timber sales.”
“That’s where you could help us out,” Maisch said.
The Forest Service found sympathetic ears when it came to the discussion about NEPA and forest fires consuming more time, money and staff over the past several years.
Reps. Gosar of Arizona and Newhouse of Washington noted the many challenges on their states, in addition to the fires in neighboring states Oregon, Nevada and California that they assist.
Gosar is the chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources as well as the vice chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Interior.
The representative from Arkansas’ presence raised questions about why that state is part of the Western Caucus.
Arkansas was “once the west,” Westerman told the group. But in addition, Westerman has a unique background as a forester, the only one is Congress, noted Young’s spokesman, Matt Shuckerow. In fact, he has a master’s of forestry from Yale University and is eager to help shape public policy to help better manage the nations forests.
At the end of the discussion, the five representatives acknowledged they share a lot in common as their states fight “onerous federal requirements” on federal lands. They also share concerns about climate change, the devastation of the bark beetle and the increasingly occurring wildfires.
The representative from American Samoa, Amata, echoed Young’s sentiment that climate change is a “man-made” problem.
Amata also sympathized with fisheries hurdles and indigenous issues expressed earlier by Alaska Native groups.
“We thought federal policies had negatively impacted us and we are outnumbered by people who don’t know or care” about the result, Amata said at the end, during questions from the press. “But this visit reinforces the bond of the organization of the Western Caucus and we realize how much we share in common.”
Newhouse said he wanted to take back to Washington the message that the west is over-regulated and the time it takes to get a project off the ground carries “a human cost factor” that the U.S. economy can’t afford.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.