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The winter of our discontent: 'Reset button' to improve state-federal relations may prove elusive

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Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Editorial:

News-Miner opinion: U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s visit to northwestern Alaska earlier this week was intended as a means of getting input on climate change issues in coastal villages and speaking with the Alaska Federation of Natives. It ended up a bit of a circus, however, because of its proximity to President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that his administration will seek wilderness status for the hotly contested Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After several of Alaska’s state and federal lawmakers made the trip to Kotzebue to voice their displeasure with the federal government’s actions, Secretary Jewell said she’d like to “hit the reset button” on relations with the Last Frontier. We’d like it if everyone could get along too, but it’s a bit disingenuous for the secretary to make that call now.

There’s no question that Alaska’s relationship with Washington, D.C. has been strained for decades. Based on their actions in the state, federal agencies appear to feel that the state — or at least its government — doesn’t do enough to safeguard wildlife and threatened habitat or keep the air and water clean. Many state residents, on the other hand, see federal actions and mandates about these issues as overreach into local affairs — proof that despite what our star on the U.S. flag might indicate, those in the federal government see Alaska more as a colony or protectorate than a full-fledged state. There’s misunderstanding and mistrust on both sides, and it’s a problem that feeds on itself.

But if Secretary Jewell and President Obama’s administration are looking for the reset button and wondering how things got so acrimonious lately, they need only look in the mirror to find the culprits. Certainly, there’s a red-meat-politics value within the state of railing against federal inroads into Alaska’s business, and it doesn’t help honest discussion between Alaska and federal officials. But the topic wouldn’t resonate so strongly with Alaska politicians and Alaskans in general if — especially in recent years — there hadn’t been a persistent move by federal agencies to tie up land, make rules for federal property more restrictive and refuse to negotiate on land swaps and other issues of great local concern.

The first big dustup between the Department of the Interior and Alaska on Secretary Jewell’s watch came soon after her confirmation, when hopes that she might be able to break the impasse between the department and the state on the issue of the proposed King Cove road were dashed. She dismissed the possibility of an easement or land swap to construct a one-lane road to an airstrip near the village, which residents and the state consider an urgent concern in cases of emergency.

More recently, of course, President Obama sought to place all areas of ANWR off-limits to oil and gas exploration through a wilderness designation for the refuge. In addition to reviving the debate over the potential development of the “1002 area” where the issue was to be settled at a future date, many within the state have seen the move as further proof that federal officials are unconcerned about the state’s plight as oil production declines. Federal government claims to support Alaskan economic self-determination are belied somewhat by the placing of more and more land off-limits to economic activity.

Secretary Jewell, at a press conference in Kotzebue, floated the idea of a task force or committee to build bridges between state and federal officials. But what might be more helpful would be fewer task forces and committees and more earnest conversations between our governments rather than blindsiding one another with plans. If the federal government would like to be a partner to Alaska, all it needs to do is act like one.

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at Contact the editor with questions at or call 459-7574.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at Contact the editor with questions at or call 459-7574.

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