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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Congress' Rushed Riders Wrap

Air Date: Week of

On their way back home to campaign for re-election, Congress attached around a dozen environment related riders to the latest budget. Out of the fifty United States, most of these last minute provisions relate to just one; Alaska. Joel Southern, who covers Washington D.C. for the Alaska Public Radio Network spoke with Steve Curwood about Alaska's powerful lawmakers and some of their eleventh hour political maneuvers.


CURWOOD: In the last-minute scramble to get out of Washington before the elections, Congress attached dozens of unrelated riders to the final spending package. More than a dozen of these riders will have a big impact on the environment. Of course, there are 50 states, but many of these controversial provisions apply to just one: Alaska. Joel Southern covers the nation's Capitol for the Alaska Public Radio Network Joel, why did so much of the action keep pointing back to Alaska? Is it because its delegation is sitting in the catbird seat?

SOUTHERN: I guess you could sum it up in 2 words: Ted Stevens. Ted Stevens is a senior senator from Alaska. He's also Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. And when you look through this bill, this huge, humongous bill, this monstrosity, as some people have called it, the A-word, Alaska is in there a lot, and a lot of that has to do with Senator Stevens.

CURWOOD: Now, one of Senator Stevens' major accomplishments in these negotiations was the reorganization of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska fishing industry. What happened there?

SOUTHERN: Well, essentially, Senator Stevens a while back wanted to boot out about, I think it was about 15 factory trawlers from the North Pacific. He believes factory trawlers are responsible for a lot of the decline of certain fish stocks and fish habitat there. And after a lot of wrangling between the Alaska interests and the Seattle-based factory trawler interests, they reached this compromise, which will effectively buy out about 8 of the factory trawlers at a cost of around $95 million.

CURWOOD: Joel, what will this mean for conservation of fish stocks?

SOUTHERN: Well, there are some groups who look at this compromise and believe that it will allow for more fishing, excessive fishing, more bycatch of fish. And I think you'd even find the Alaska Congressional delegation and their folks who worked on this not really having a good feel for what the total impact of the compromise will be. And they may have to go back and tweak it in future years just to make sure that it's not having some unintended effects.

CURWOOD: So, it seems that Alaska's fishing industry could be getting more access to fish stocks, or also getting millions of dollars to buy off some trawler boats. It also seems that the logging interests in Alaska chalked up something of a win, this time in the Tongass National Forest. Joel, can you explain what the riders would do in the Tongass National Forest?

SOUTHERN: Senator Frank Murkowski, the junior Senator from Alaska, was pushing a provision originally that would have made the Forest Service put up 90% of the 267 million board foot allowable sales quantity in the Tongass. They would have to do that or dig into their own pockets to pay local communities the money that they wouldn't otherwise be getting from the timber sales. And that, of course, proved to be controversial for a number of conservation groups. The compromise was something like this: Senator Murkowski didn't get what he wanted in terms of the timber harvest, but he did get a pledge from the Clinton Administration for about $12-1/2 million to make sure there was adequate timber supply offered to the Southeast Alaska industry, and a pledge from Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to work with that industry to foster value-added production in the Tongass, such as a veneer plant or other types of processing.

CURWOOD: One of the highest-profile riders was an effort to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, that is, to set a precedent by putting a road through a wilderness area. I guess this hasn't happened before. Both the White House and the Alaska Republicans said hey, they were going to the mats on this one, that they weren't going to give in. Why did Senator Stevens agree to back down on this road proposal?

SOUTHERN: Well, try $37.75 million (laughs). That's primarily the reason.


SOUTHERN: They did fight over this a good bit, and it would have been unprecedented had they cut this road through this very important area in the middle of the Izembek Wildlife Refuge. It's a place where waterfowl rest as they fly South in the Pacific Flyway. Senator Stevens ultimately saw that they could not prevail, and was offered several options. He had a meeting directly with the White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles. Bowles lay down a list and said, "Well, Senator, here's our options, choose one." He said, "I'll take 3." And the 3 options ended up being $37.75 million.

CURWOOD: So what's the lesson here, Joel? All politics is local?

SOUTHERN: Well, a lot of people would say all politics is Alaska, as long as Senator Stevens is Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. It's just really amazing how he's used that leverage to get a lot of money and a lot of consideration steered Alaska's way.

CURWOOD: Joel Southern is the Chief of Alaska Public Radio's Bureau in Washington, DC. Thank you, sir.

SOUTHERN: Thank you, Steve.



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