A Q&A with Mary Peltola, Alaska’s new House Rep

HCN caught up with the Democrat and first Alaska Native person in Congress to talk about balancing development and environmental protection.

 

Mary Peltola, who is Alaska Native and a Democrat, won the special election for Alaska’s vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on Aug. 31. She will serve out the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term, which ends in January.

In a state where unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined, Peltola struck the right tone, said Chanda Meek, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “In line with most Democrats who are successful in the state, she has a pro-resource development stance,” she said. She thinks Peltola’s years as a state legislator representing rural western Alaska, and her more recent experience leading the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which works to involve Kuskokwim River tribes and rural residents in federal fisheries management, could help her address the environmental and economic concerns of people who live near proposed development projects.

Mary Peltola, Alaska’s next representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, said she supports resource development — as long as projects, including oil and gas drilling and mineral extraction, reflect the priorities of the people who live closest to them.
Courtesy of Mary Peltola

Peltola (Yup’ik), who is from Bethel and a tribal member of the Orutsararmiut Native Council, is walking a fine line as a Democrat who favors resource development — including oil and gas drilling, mineral extraction and logging — yet supports environmental concerns. For example, she opposes specific controversial projects, such as the Pebble Mine, a proposed copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. Local tribes, residents, the commercial fishing industry and environmentalists have been fighting the massive project for years.

Peltola narrowly beat Republican Sarah Palin in the race to fill the state’s only seat in the U.S. House. (The results, though not expected to change, will remain unofficial until certified by the State Review Board.) This election was the first test of the state’s new ranked-choice voting system, which allows voters to rank their top three candidates in order of preference rather than pick only one. Advocates say this system could reduce partisan polarization and enable more moderate candidates to win. In Alaska’s special election, 15,000 people who ranked Republican Nick Begich first ranked Peltola second. Those split-party ballots sealed her victory.

Only four months remain in Young’s term, so Peltola will have little time to make her mark in Congress. In the meantime, she still has to prepare for the general election in November, when she will once again face both Palin and Begich, as well as Libertarian Chris Bye.

High Country News caught up with Mary Peltola for a brief interview to discuss her positions on environmental policy impacting Alaska:

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

High Country News: What are your priorities for environment and resource legislation?

Mary Peltola: As an Alaskan, as someone who’s benefited tremendously from the wealth that Alaska has generated from the oil pipeline, and having full recognition that our state pays its bills from oil revenue — of course, I am pro-resource development. At the same time, I recognize that we've got to make sure that our ecosystems are healthy and balanced. So any resource development would need to be done by the highest standards. I believe Alaska does resource development very well, so that would continue to be my priority.

“I believe Alaska does resource development very well, so that would continue to be my priority.”

HCN: Do you think that federal permitting processes currently do enough to adequately hear and address environmental concerns of people who live near proposed development sites?

MP: The permitting process is often very lengthy, sometimes going beyond 10 years. I do think that our agencies need to be adequately staffed and adequately resourced in order to fulfill the obligations of the permitting system. One of the biggest pieces is just making sure that we have timelines within those permitting processes and making sure that we reduce turnover within agencies and just make sure that agencies have the staff and resources that they need to really do a good job through the permitting process.

HCN: Congress will likely consider streamlining Clean Water Act permitting processes this month. It was one of the concessions promised to Sen. Joe Manchin in exchange for his vote on the Inflation Reduction Act. What do you think about streamlining Clean Water Act permitting?

MP: I need to read within the legislation. I can’t speak to the details of the proposal at this point, but it will certainly be something that I’m taking a very detailed look at.

HCN: That’s something that could obviously affect Pebble Mine, because the Environmental Protection Agency is considering Clean Water Act restrictions to protect the Bristol Bay watershed and limit mining there. Tell me a little bit about your concerns with permitting Pebble Mine.

MP: Well, it’s just been very clear to me that there is not social license to operate from the tribal groups in the Bristol Bay area, the commercial fishermen, the sport fishermen. So that's one of the largest concerns.

The other concern is, across Alaska, we’re seeing diminished salmon returns, (with) the exception of the sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay. They had a record year. They caught over 70 million reds this year. Having this one region of our state and this one species of salmon doing very, very well — why on earth would we jeopardize that when our salmon returns across the state have just plummeted?

HCN: Going back to the federal permitting processes for resource development, do you think that the Bureau of Land Management and the EPA have done enough to hear people in Bristol Bay who have environmental concerns about that mine proposal?

MP: I think that the fact that the permits have not been granted and that project is not under construction gives me confidence that the permitting process is working.

HCN: Before you go, you are the first Alaska Native person elected to Congress. You’ll also be the first woman to represent Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives. How do you feel about those distinctions?

MP: It’s an honor to represent Alaska, and it’s a real honor and a privilege to have been chosen to fulfill the remainder of Congressman Young’s term. It is historic for Alaska Native women, but I am much more than just my ethnicity or my gender, and I intend to do the best job I can representing all Alaskans, no matter where they're from or what their ethnic background is.

Avery Lill is an Alaska-based staff writer for High Country News focusing on land and the environment in Alaska. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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