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Senate panel endorses Jewell for Interior chief

  • Article by: MATTHEW DALY
  • Associated Press
  • March 21, 2013 - 12:08 PM

WASHINGTON - The Senate Energy Committee on Thursday endorsed President Barack Obama's nomination of Sally Jewell to be Interior secretary, moving her nomination to the Senate floor for an expected vote next month.

The committee's 19-3 vote in favor of Jewell came after current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar agreed to review a decision blocking construction of a gravel road through a wildlife refuge to provide access to an all-weather airport in rural Alaska.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, had threatened to hold up Jewell's nomination unless the Obama administration agreed to a land exchange that would allow the road, which would grant access to an all-weather airport for the remote community of King Cove, on the Bering Sea in southwestern Alaska.

Under the agreement, Interior will review an environmental analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that concluded the road could be harmful to geese and other waterfowl that fly through the refuge on their way to warmer climates. Murkowski says the report didn't adequately consider the importance of protecting human health and safety.

As part of the agreement, an assistant Interior secretary will visit King Cove and tour the site of the proposed road. If confirmed as Interior secretary, Jewell also will tour the site, most likely this summer, Murkowski said.

Salazar never visited King Cove before rejecting the road, a point of contention for Murkowski and other Alaska lawmakers.

"Secretary Jewell will have the undeniable privilege of going to King Cove, and I will be there with her," Murkowski told reporters after the brief committee meeting. "We may have to fly to (nearby) Cold Bay and walk, but that's OK. She's a hiker," Murkowski said.

Even with the road dispute tentatively settled, Jewell faces other obstacles to confirmation. Several senators who voted to advance her nomination, including Murkowski, said they reserved the right to oppose her on the Senate floor.

Jewell, the CEO of outdoor retailer REI, was nominated last month to replace Salazar as Interior chief, overseeing more than 500 million acres of national parks and other public lands, and more than 1 billion acres offshore. The lands are used for a range of purposes, including energy development, mining and recreation. The department also provides services to 566 federally recognized Indian tribes.

Jewell, 57, of Seattle, previously worked as a petroleum engineer and banker. A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, Jewell is known as a biker, skier and mountain climber and served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group that works to protect and enhance national parks.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said he was concerned that Jewell claimed ignorance about a series of lawsuits filed by the parks group, which has sought to block a federal law allowing firearms in national parks and to stop development of coal mines and other energy production.

Jewell's service on the NCPA's board poses a potential conflict of interest, Barrasso and other GOP senators said. Jewell told the committee at a hearing this month that she played no role in the lawsuits.

Republican Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and Dean Heller of Nevada said they would push Jewell to refrain from listing the sage grouse as an endangered species. Offering protections for the bird under the Endangered Species Act could severely restrict ranching, grazing, mining and other activities on public land in their states, the senators said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the energy panel, said Jewell had pledged to work collaboratively with lawmakers from both parties to resolve a range of issues.

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