Aug. 30--A state known for vilifying Democratic presidents and bristling at "federal overreach" is toning down the rhetoric with President Barack Obama arriving Monday, now that Shell has been allowed to drill in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
Still, Alaska leaders are wary.
They fear Obama's visit will set the stage for new restrictions, like those announced early this year when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited and the president proposed new limits on development.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, the state's most irascible and seasoned office holder, said the administration's "onslaught" of anti-development regulations in recent years will have a "devastating" effect in Alaska, costing jobs and investment. He suggested more restrictions may be coming, and said Obama should give his speech somewhere else if he's only focused on the environment.
"By using our state as a poster child for a reckless environmental agenda, the president fails to recognize the harsh realities facing numerous Alaskans," Young said in his latest Message to Alaskans.
Other Alaska leaders may be more welcoming, but they're not necessarily willing to go along with Obama's plans to focus on climate change in Alaska. They're more concerned about the state's unprecedented economic crisis amid low oil prices and dwindling production.
They also hope the president acknowledges the new development opportunities presented by a melting Arctic, as well as other giant problems that include deep poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, and no running water and sewers in many villages.
'War' on Alaska?
Earlier this year, Obama withdrew 9.8 million acres of the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas leasing. He also recommended enhanced protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Alaskans have long wanted to tap to replace the North Slope's sagging oil production.
Following those actions, state politicians blasted Obama for "declaring war" on the state. But some views appear to have softened after the administration awarded Shell federal drilling permits for a prospect that could improve the state's dimming fortunes if enough oil is struck.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who called Obama's earlier proposals a "triple-gut punch," said she appreciates the president's effort to understand the Arctic with his unusual three-day trip. That's a huge improvement over past presidential visits that used the state as little more than a refueling stop.
"Clearly we have had our policy differences. If you had all afternoon I could pick them off for you, but we also recognize a visit by a president is a big deal for any state," Murkowski said.
It's coming at a time with Alaska under an international spotlight, thanks in part to the U.S. State Department conference dubbed GLACIER that will deal with Arctic issues. The president can help draw attention to that topic by pointing out the need for new Arctic infrastructure in Alaska, such as ports and icebreakers, to handle increasing marine traffic atop the globe, she said.
"If he were to suggest we all need to put our shoulders together to make sure we have assets ready in the Arctic, that will be a positive," Murkowski said. He needs to "make it clear these are national assets because we are an Arctic nation."
The president's timing is regrettable, however, something she tried to change without luck. Closures will hinder air traffic needed to reach remote areas just as the moose- and duck-hunting seasons begin, potentially angering many Alaskans.
"They will be ticked off and heavily armed, and I say that a little tongue in cheek," she said.
Arriving on Monday, the president plans to:
* Speak at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, a high-level gathering of foreign ministers and other officials associated with the eight-nation Arctic Council now chaired by the U.S.
* Appear in Seward, where easily accessible Exit Glacier is living up to its name and retreating dramatically.
* Visit Dillingham in Southwest Alaska, near the nation's most important wild sockeye salmon fishery and the Pebble mineral prospect the EPA may pre-emptively halt.
* Stop in Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, in a region where warming has noticeably reduced sea ice, threatening villages and walrus.
Murkowski said she hopes Alaskans will "all be respectful and welcoming and make sure he is able to see the Alaska we know and love."
Stirring Alaskans' rage
The state's troubled relations with past Democratic presidents include burning Jimmy Carter in effigy after he invoked the Antiquities Act in 1978 to help put tens of millions of acres off limits to development. Bill Clinton was also deeply unpopular, getting one-third of the state's vote in 1996 after he vetoed legislation that would have approved oil development in a coastal section of ANWR.
Top Obama officials have also stirred rage in a state that's 60 percent federally owned. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, already under fire for EPA's efforts to stop Pebble, united Alaskans in anger last year when she visited the state and said a gift of moose meat from a girl was bad enough to "gag a maggot."
Jewell has also been attacked for refusing to allow an emergency access road to cross the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula, with Young blasting her as "cowardly" and comparing her to the "Grinch" for putting animal lives above humans in the remote village of King Cove.
But Obama, who took a better-than-expected 41 percent of the Alaska vote in the last presidential election, has riled conservationists, too.
Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society, said Obama's visit is historic and comes at a critical moment with the Arctic melting quickly. She added that he's taken "a number of very positive steps for conservation in the Arctic," she said.
But not always. "We are disappointed because his administration has moved forward with drilling in the Chukchi Sea," she added.
Also unpopular -- with conservation groups -- is the administration's decision this year to support a ConocoPhillips proposal for the first oil development on federal land in the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an action that snubbed more restrictive options and could set a precedent for future development.
Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican turned independent who called the presidential announcements earlier this year a "shot across the bow," said this week he's "pleased" the administration approved offshore drilling by Shell.
It gives Walker comfort that Obama's focus on climate change won't be used to further restrict oil development. "If he had taken a different position on offshore, I'd be more concerned about that," said Walker, who added that he's received assurances there will be no surprise announcements this time.
Walker said he's expecting to meet with the president one-to-one, and plans to emphasize the need to tap oil, gas and other resources, as well as the state's "economic climate change" that is producing multibillion-dollar deficits.
More access to state resources will benefit climate-threatened villages in Alaska such as Kivalina, where Jewell visited in February, giving the state the financial wherewithal to better support relocations, he said.
"I want him to see it's very expensive to relocate a community," Walker said. "I don't know that they'll step up and fund that."
As for the state's Republican-led Legislature, lawmakers raged against the administration early this year with strongly worded press releases, multiple resolutions against "federal overreach," even a mocking Dr. Seuss poem that said Alaskans seem sweet but they might be "packing heat." The tone seems less icy now, perhaps because no known presidential proposals are on the table.
Rep. Mike Chenault said those past reactions didn't necessarily stem from "anger." Instead, lawmakers were "upset" because they didn't have a say in decisions affecting Alaska.
But Chenault remains on guard because the president's climate-change agenda "leads me to think they're looking at enacting some other issues with the state to try to lock up more land and put more restraints on what's available."
Murkowski said she also has concerns that stretch beyond the president's visit. In his last 16 months in office, she fears he'll seek to further limit development, perhaps by using his powers under the Antiquities Act to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Aleutian Islands as national monuments.
Murkowski characterized her office's relationship with the White House as "adversarial," and said she fights daily to protect opportunities ranging from mining to fishing to oil and gas development.
"The battle that has gone on trying to access our land continues," she said.
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