Among a crowd of lawmakers from across the country at the White House on Friday, Alaska state House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell about her decision to continue to bar a potentially life-saving road through a federal wildlife refuge in Southeast Alaska.
He was shocked by her response.
“I wish that Alaskans would get over it,” Jewell said, according to Pruitt, who wrote down the quote, referring to the long-fought-for road from King Cove to Cold Bay. Pruitt said she talked about other issues that she felt were “more important” than the road, like opening up lands for oil development in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, and offshore drilling in the Arctic.
“Do you know how you feel when you get punched in the gut? That’s how I felt,” Pruitt said in a phone interview on Friday. “What she basically said is that drilling is more important than saving lives.”
Other lawmakers in the room approached Pruitt after the meeting, describing Jewell’s reaction as “arrogant.”Jewell was one of three Obama White House cabinet secretaries who were meeting with a group of about 50 legislators from across the country as part of the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Alaska state lawmakers present were Pruitt and Sen. Kevin Meyer.
Residents of King Cove — a village of about 950 on the Aleutian chain — have been lobbying the federal government to allow for the road that would cut through a portion of the Izembek Wildlife Refuge to the village of Cold Bay, about 22 miles away. There are numerous stories of deaths and near-deaths because of the lack of a road. Cold Bay has an all weather airport that’s used in medical emergencies. King Cove does not.
In December, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a land swap that would have turned over 60,000 of acres to the feds in exchange for 2,000 acres needed to build the road. She said it had the potential to harm the Pacific black brant, which is a small goose, and other wildlife in the refuge.
Both U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski support the road, but between the two, Murkowski has fought the most vigilantly for it. Pruitt and Meyer met with the senators before the meeting with Jewell. Murkowski suggested that Pruitt ask Jewell about the road. The question wasn’t out of Pruitt’s purview. In March, the Alaska state Legislature passed a joint resolution, urging Jewell to reconsider her decision.
Montana Majority Leader Art Wittich was at the meeting. He said that Jewell was gracious, educated and patient, and he was very appreciative of her taking time to meet with the group. 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.
“A bunch of us in the room were surprised by her response,” Wittich said. He said that he didn’t remember specifically her saying “get over it,” but he she said that the comment was in keeping with her attitude on the subject, which he said was an “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” attitude.
Murkowski spokesperson Robert Dillon put out a release on Friday shortly after the incident. “If Secretary Jewell doesn’t consider Interior’s trust responsibility to the Native peoples of American important to the department’s mission – President Obama should find one who does,” he said.
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