When Alaska state House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt traveled to Washington D.C. with a group of lawmakers from across the country, he had no idea that he would get into a high-profile spat with Sally Jewell, the secretary of the Interior Department, the federal agency that is basically the landlord to more than 60 percent of Alaska’s land.
“I never intended to get in any kind of war with a cabinet secretary,” Pruitt, who’s known for being cautious and even tempered, said in an interview on Saturday.
Ostensibly, the “war” is over whether or not Jewell said that she wished Alaska would “get over” pushing to get a gravel, potentially life-saving road through a slice of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s Aleutian chain. Pruitt said that was Jewell’s response after he asked her about the road during a White House meeting. According to Pruitt, Jewell said that there were more important things to focus on in the state, like drilling in the Arctic Ocean and in NPR-A.
Pruitt said that Jewell said, “I wish Alaskans would get over this one issue.”
A spokesperson for the agency categorically denied the statement.“Representative Pruitt’s characterization of the Secretary’s comments is factually wrong, plain and simple,” an unnamed department spokesperson told Politico Pro on Saturday morning.
Pruitt stands by what he heard her say. However, he wants to emphasize that the real ‘war’ is over the road itself and the fact that a federal agency has chosen to protect the birds in the refuge over the lives of the people who live in the area. “We can disagree about development, but these are people’s lives at stake here,” Pruitt said.
In December, Jewell denied the 10-mile road that would connect King Cove to an all-weather airport in another village that could be used in medical emergencies. Over the years, people have died because of the lack of access to the airport. The issue has been a point of simmering tension between Jewell and the state, particularly with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who, along with Sen. Mark Begich, voted to confirm Jewell. The state is now suing, and Murkowski has been peppering Jewell with letters and with questions about her decision.
Pruitt said that he was paying close attention and was taking notes as Jewell was talking. Her comment, and the overall tone of her answer, shocked him. “I was almost embarrassed,” he said. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Am I hearing this wrong? Is there something that I’m missing here?’”
Montana Majority Leader Art Wittich was at the same meeting. He said in an interview on Friday that overall, Jewell was gracious, educated and patient. However, the King Cove question seemed to rattle her, and her answer was not like the answers she gave on forest fires, say, or on fracking.
Wittich said that he didn’t remember specifically her saying “get over it,” but he said that the comment was in keeping with her attitude on the subject, which he described as “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“A bunch of us in the room were surprised by her response,” Wittich said
Murkowski is standing by Pruitt. “I think that she backpedaled because I think she realizes how really improper her response was,” Murkowski said in an interview on Saturday. Besides, it’s in keeping with her attitude about the issue.
Before Jewell announced that she was rejecting the road, she called Murkowski and told her that she would address the needs of the residents. That was seven months ago. Since, there have been numerous medical emergencies in the village that have required Coast Guard evacuations, some of which have been dangerous. Residents have traveled to D.C. to implore Jewell to reconsider the issue, or to provide some sort of alternative. So far, Jewell hasn’t.
Jewell has “turned a blind eye and a deaf ear,” to the villagers, Murkowski said.
“If I had a chance to do it over knowing how she’s handled this and how she’s rejected the people of King Cove, I would not have voted for her confirmation,” Murkowski said.
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