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Alaska Resource Bills Provoke Senate Spat

A battle that pits taxpayer and environmental groups against Alaska mining and logging interests has ensnared a half-dozen Senators in an election-year tussle over natural resources legislation backed by endangered Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Backed by groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Alaska Wilderness League, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) walked out of a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee markup a week and a half ago to prevent approval of two bills sponsored by Murkowski.

Now, Bingaman says that he and two of his Democratic colleagues — Sens. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Tim Johnson (S.D.) — are being unfairly targeted for retribution by Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, who, like Murkowski, is an Alaska Republican.

Stevens and Murkowski allege that the three Democrats were attempting to prevent Murkowski from bolstering her legislative record as she runs a difficult race against former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D). Bingaman, however, says the dispute over Murkowski’s bills are about more substance than politics.

“I think this whole circumstance has been mischaracterized,” said Bingaman, whose bills — along with Johnson’s and Cantwell’s — are now being held up by Stevens. “My sentiment was, since Democrats had not supported these bills, we would not give them the quorum to enact these bills. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position to take.”

Because Bingaman and Johnson left the room and had committee staff prevent Cantwell from joining the markup, Republicans did not have the working quorum needed to send bills to the Senate floor.

Bingaman said he was most opposed to a Murkowski bill that would transfer land from the Tongass National Forest near Juneau to two native Alaskan corporations that specialize in resource extraction in exchange for land in Ketchikan that has already been logged.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, opposes the land transfer, arguing that the federal government will not only get land that has been clear-cut but will also be forced to bear costs to rehabilitate the area and its roads.

“Not only are you getting land that is of significantly less value, but it’s going to add costs on top of that,” said Franz Matzner of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Essentially, taxpayers are getting cheated out of resources that we own.”

Environmentalists oppose the transfer because they say the native Alaskan corporations will not be giving up the same kind of pristine, resource-rich land they will be getting near Juneau.

“You’re trading trees for stumps,” said Brian Moore, legislative director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Local opposition appears to be growing. On Sept. 19, a Juneau Empire editorial opined, “There’s no way that 1,700 acres of land that has been mostly logged can be fair compensation for 2,600 acres of virtually untouched property at Berners Bay, one of the wilderness gems of this region.”

But Bruce Borup, CEO of Cape Fox, one of the native Alaskan corporations involved in the land swap, said the land his corporation is requesting has historically been mined and a planned gold mine on the land will go forward regardless of whether the Forest Service is allowed to transfer the tract to Cape Fox.

Indeed, the mining company, Coeur Alaska, has supported the land transfer solely because mining permits for privately owned lands get faster approval from the government than mining permits on federally owned land.

Borup said Cape Fox did not intend to log any of the land near Juneau as it had its land near Ketchikan because the trees on the land were “trash trees” — only good for pulp. The corporation just wants to get its revenue from leasing the land to Coeur Alaska, he said.

In addition, Borup said, Cape Fox was unfairly restricted in choosing its land by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The Murkowski bill would rectify the inequities caused by the original law, he said.

The second Murkowski bill blocked by the Bingaman walkout is still in play, Bingaman said. His staff was working with Murkowski’s staff last week to iron out differences on a more general bill to accelerate land transfers.

Both Bingaman and Moore of the Alaska Wilderness League said they supported Murkowski’s intent to quickly settle some land claims by native Alaskans, but they cautioned that the details still needed to be worked out.

“It’s a good idea, but like lots and lots of these massive pieces of legislation, it needs to be vetted,” said Moore.

Bingaman said he objects to the two Murkowski bills on principle and not because of politics, noting that he helped facilitate the full Senate passage of three different Murkowski bills on the same day as the walkout.

Still, no amount of argument over the substance of her bills — including a private talk with Bingaman on the floor last week — has convinced Murkowski, or Stevens, that the walkout was unrelated to election-year politics.

“As soon as I began presenting my bill, he left the room,” said Murkowski. “Not five minutes went by and Senator Cantwell tried to come in, and she was forcibly pushed out by the Democratic staffers on the committee.”

She added, “It lends the appearance that there was more to it. … The timing was suspicious.”

Bingaman does not deny that he walked out of the committee markup on Sept. 15, after 21 bills had been approved — including seven measures sponsored by Democrats — in order to prevent the approval of the two Murkowski bills and one each sponsored by Sens. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). However, Bingaman says he was upfront with Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) about his opposition to all four bills.

Domenici acknowledged that Bingaman had alerted the Republican staff on the committee, but he added that Democrats “should have stayed and debated it.”

Meanwhile, Johnson insisted that he was not part of the walkout and had simply left the Energy markup to attend a concurrent Appropriations markup.

“There was a quorum when I left,” said Johnson. “I didn’t view what I was doing as a walkout at all.”

Cantwell’s office did not return a call seeking comment.

A Stevens spokeswoman said Stevens would continue to place holds on the bills of all three Democrats until they apologize to Murkowski.

“He considers it an affront to a Senator,” said the spokeswoman.

As for Murkowski’s bills, it doesn’t look likely that they’ll see the light of day anytime soon. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee may have another markup this week, but a spokeswoman said neither of Murkowski’s bills are likely to make it onto the agenda.