When President Obama's proposed budget to Congress was released last week, it contained some sobering news. Under a budget agreement that the president and Congress worked out in December, the Pentagon's budget will shrink by more than $75 billion over the next two years -- with deeper cuts expected if sequestration returns in fiscal year 2016.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon has to accommodate a $37-billion budget cut "in a matter of months while trying to avoid catastrophic damage to national security."
Congress pushed for these military spending cuts because it is determined to reduce government spending. As a veteran I find force reductions a bit unnerving, but I know Secretary Hagel is being thoughtful and strategic in the face of reduced resources.
So you can understand my interest in hearing that Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is pushing hard to get taxpayer money reallocated. But unfortunately, she's not trying to reinvest in our national defense -- a significant employer (33,281 Alaskan jobs) and driver of Alaska's economy.
Instead, while the U.S. military takes a devastating cut in funding, Sen. Murkowski is raising hell, as she puts it, because she wants to build a $75-million gravel road to a bunch of seafood processing plants. Like her father before her, Sen. Murkowski believes that the seafood processing industry in King Cove, Alaska (population 948), is deserving of a new gravel road through the heart of the irreplaceable Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to an industry town at the end of the Alaska Peninsula.
Veterans in the Lower 48 who hunt may be familiar with the name; Izembek is renowned for trophy brown bear hunting -- some of the best in the world. The refuge also provides critical habitat for migratory birds -- including major game species -- as well as moose, salmon, fox and caribou. Almost all of world's emperor geese and Pacific black brant rest and feed at the Izembek refuge during spring and fall migrations.
The King Cove seafood processing companies may be less well-known. On its website, one of them, Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc., confirms that it is "wholly-owned by Maruha Capital Investments, Inc., a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro Holdings in Japan, one of the Fortune 500 companies outside the United States and the largest seafood company in the world."
Years ago, Sen. Frank Murkowski and a bevy of lobbyists pushed Congress to fund the same gravel road -- to no avail. Instead, Congress agreed in 1998 to provide tens of millions of dollars for King Cove to purchase alternative transportation to and from the town and to upgrade the local health clinic. In 2008, the Alaskan delegation again tried to have taxpayers fund the seafood processors' road through the Izembek wilderness. And again they failed.
Under pressure from Sen. Murkowski, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell reviewed for a third time the scientific implications of new road construction through this internationally-recognized wildlife habitat in 2013. She visited King Cove and heard from the congressional delegation. Then Secretary Jewell agreed with prior common-sense assessments by Congress and the Department of the Interior: a new road would simply be too damaging to Izembek's habitat and our conservation heritage.
Sen. Murkowski remains unbowed. Perhaps the senator's energy would be better spent advocating for investments that benefit all Americans, such as an enhanced military investment and force structure in Alaska, or the conservation of our natural resources. I believe our shared American heritage is actually worth fighting for -- and have served my country accordingly. But fighting for a gravel road? Not so much.