WASHINGTON — The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Sally Jewell’s nomination to become the next head of the Interior Department by a vote of 19 to 3 Thursday, after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar agreed to look again at whether to allow a road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the panel’s top Republican, has lobbied hard in recent weeks for construction of a gravel road through the wilderness area to ensure residents of the remote King Cove community have reliable access to a neighboring all-weather airport for medical emergencies. Eleven residents have died in flights related to medical evacuations since 1980.
While the U.S. 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 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 thinks “that additional steps and dialogue are appropriate before a final decision is made.”
In a statement on Thursday, Murkowski said: “I look forward to working with Interior to ensure the department fulfills its native trust responsibilities to the people of King Cove.”
But environmentalists decried the agreement, noting that the wilderness is an internationally recognized wetlands area. It boasts a three-mile-wide isthmus with lagoons on either side and is home to an endangered sea duck, Steller’s eider, 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 in the Clinton administration, 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.”
Three Republican senators - John Barrasso (Wyo.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Tim Scott (S.C.) - voted against 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 think that 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 chief executive 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 her management skills and work encouraging outdoor recreation and national parks.