On Dillingham trip, Murkowski pushes permanent protections for Bristol Bay

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, talks to reporters in the Alaska Capitol in Juneau after her annual address to the Legislature on Feb. 18, 2020.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, talks to reporters in the Alaska Capitol in Juneau after her annual address to the Legislature on Feb. 18, 2020. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited Dillingham last week to gather ideas to permanently protect Bristol Bay against development such as the proposed Pebble mine.

Murkowski used to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has historically been a strong supporter of resource development. For years, she declined to support or oppose Pebble, arguing it was important to wait for the federal permitting process to play out.

As the Army Corps of Engineers neared its final permit decision last year and undercover tapes emerged of Pebble leaders doubting she’d take a stand against the project, Murkowski did just that.

In Dillingham, Murkowski met with people from commercial, subsistence and recreational fisheries. She also held a closed meeting with community leaders at the Dillingham Middle/High School.

“This is kind of the beginning of stakeholder engagements and meetings, and we will be continuing this throughout the process,” she said in an interview with KDLG on Friday.

Murkowski said the best way to ensure long-term protection is for Congress to pass a law. In the past, groups that opposed Pebble have pushed for a preemptive veto from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“That clearly is a tool that provides for a level of protection, but it doesn’t necessarily ensure that any entity coming beyond the Pebble proposal would be prohibited from mining activity. So if that’s what’s being sought, it’s legislation,” she said.

Earlier this year, regional and statewide groups opposed to Pebble put forward several options for protecting the area. One was to create a National Fisheries Area, which would bypass the need for a state designation.

Murkowski said possibilities include the federal government taking over state land, which would give the feds the authority to protect it from any future development.

“There have been discussions about whether it’s exchanges, or ways that you can ensure that the mineral rights that currently exist with the state are exchanged, are conveyed,” she said. “So these are the types of things that we are exploring at this point in time.”

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