Maria Cantwell hosting a healthcare town hall
Maria Cantwell smiles as she listens to a constituent question at her healthcare town hall (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The dull floor of the Unit­ed States Sen­ate was the scene in 2005 of a melt­down by Alaska’s then-senior Repub­li­can U.S. Sen­a­tor Ted Stevens, who had a pen­chant for vent­ing his hot tem­per to staff and press.

With glass­es twirling in his hand, Stevens threat­ened he would come out to Wash­ing­ton and cam­paign against the reelec­tion of Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell.

He ful­mi­nat­ed about how Wash­ing­ton’s Sen­ate del­e­ga­tion used to car­ry water for Alas­ka devel­op­ment projects, but no more.

Cantwell and Sen­a­tor Joe Lieber­man of Con­necti­cut had just spot­ted and side­tracked a care­ful­ly laid Stevens plan. He was going to use the Defense Autho­riza­tion Bill to sneak in an amend­ment autho­riz­ing oil devel­op­ment in Alaska’s Arc­tic Refuge. After all, nobody dared fil­i­buster a defense bill.

Except the “Gen­tle­la­dy from Washington.”

Stevens did fume against Cantwell dur­ing a Taco­ma visit.

He endorsed a big fundrais­er for her Repub­li­can chal­lenger Mike McGav­ick with Anchor­age movers and shak­ers. It raised $14,000-plus, every dol­lar of which McGav­ick had to return because sev­er­al atten­dees were part of a “Cor­rupt Bas­tards Club” under inves­ti­ga­tion for pur­chas­ing Alas­ka leg­is­la­tors.

Cantwell won reelec­tion in a walk.

Maria Cantwell hosting a healthcare town hall
Maria Cantwell smiles as she lis­tens to a con­stituent ques­tion at a health­care town hall (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The “Gen­tle­la­dy” is a climber, in Sen­ate senior­i­ty and as one who has sum­mit­ed  Rainier and Kil­i­man­jaro – the sum­mit of Africa – and scaled the Grand Teton while fundrais­ing in Jack­son, Wyoming. Rich lib­er­al patrons live there.

Cantwell is also an envi­ron­men­tal war­rior of tenac­i­ty and tac­ti­cal skill. She helped win a big one last week, when the Army Corps of Engi­neers denied a per­mit to the pro­posed Peb­ble Mine, a giant open pit – with a mam­moth tail­ings dam – cheek-to-jowl with two of Bris­tol Bay’s most pro­duc­tive salmon rivers.

Cantwell has been on the case for years. She was a dri­ving force behind EPA Region X stud­ies, dur­ing the Oba­ma-Biden Admin­is­tra­tion, that probed dam­age that the mine could do to the world’s great­est sock­eye salmon fishery.

Ear­ly on, Cantwell advo­cat­ed using the Clean Water Act to block con­struc­tion of the mine, sit­ed about two hun­dred miles south­west of Anchorage.

Cantwell does not and did not speak with lyri­cal beau­ty about the envi­ron­ment. Instead, she totaled up the 14,000-plus jobs sup­port­ed by the com­mer­cial, native and sport fish­ery of Bris­tol Bay. She not­ed the Puget Sound fish­ing boats with a license to work Bris­tol Bay. She helped line up allies, from restau­rants and chefs to jew­el­ry firms (such as Tiffany and Ben Bridge) who pledged not to use met­als from the Peb­ble Mine. On “low­er 48” issues, she rat­tles off sta­tis­tics on con­tri­bu­tions of America’s recre­ation indus­try to the economy.

Cantwell has spe­cial­ized in long caus­es, not lost causes.

She has spent two decades cham­pi­oning the Land and Water Con­ser­va­tion Fund. It was cre­at­ed long ago (1964) by Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tor Hen­ry “Scoop” Jack­son, allo­cat­ing $900 mil­lion a year from fed­er­al off­shore oil rev­enues to con­ser­va­tion and recre­ation projects across the country.

The fund has under­writ­ten projects from Seattle’s Lake Union to the Appalachi­an Trail. But Con­gress has often ignored LWCF, some­times robbed it to pay for oth­er projects, and even shame­ful­ly let it expire.

No more.

Cantwell is an archi­tect of the Great Amer­i­can Out­doors Act, passed by Con­gress this sum­mer, which has locked in the $900 mil­lion for LWCF. It has also put up $1.9 bil­lion a year to address the back­log of projects at America’s nation­al parks.

The bill was passed by a Repub­li­can-con­trolled Sen­ate. It pro­vid­ed a pro-envi­ron­ment cause for two Repub­li­can sen­a­tors up for reelec­tion, Sens. Cory Gard­ner of Col­orado (who lost) and Steve Daines of Mon­tana (who won). Cantwell was not invit­ed to the White House when Don­ald Trump signed the bill.

Cantwell and Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska, are furi­ous oppo­nents when it comes to the Arc­tic Refuge. Still, they are adults, and senior mem­bers of the Sen­ate Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources Com­mit­tee. Where they can col­lab­o­rate, they do.

They put togeth­er an ear­li­er omnibus pub­lic lands bill, which con­tained projects spon­sored by no few­er than forty Sen­ate colleagues.

It pro­tect­ed new wilder­ness, notably in Ore­gon, and gave nation­al recog­ni­tion to Seattle’s Nordic Her­itage Museum.

Of great­est con­se­quence, how­ev­er, it put 311,000 acres of Washington’s Upper Methow Val­ley off-lim­its to min­ing explo­ration. The lands lie out­side the North Cas­cades Nation­al Park Com­plex, and do not have wilder­ness des­ig­na­tion. Cana­di­an min­ers want­ed to drill. They have been sent away.

The Repub­li­cans even­tu­al­ly found a way to unlock the Arc­tic Refuge, though a back­door amend­ment to their 2017 tax bill.

The amend­ment antic­i­pat­ed rev­enue from drilling in the Refuge.

Cantwell tried to strip it, los­ing on a 52–48 Sen­ate vote.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion is try­ing to rush through a leas­ing sale in the Coastal Plain of the Refuge, like­ly a day or two before leav­ing office.

Will they get away with it? Oppo­nents are seek­ing to block drilling in court, using grounds that the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment has ignored impacts of Arc­tic oil devel­op­ment on cli­mate. Gwit’chin natives have filed one suit. Anoth­er is the work of Wash­ing­ton’s Bob Fer­gu­son and Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Mau­ra Healey.

But years of delay may stop drilling. “Big Oil” is wor­ried about low prices, high Arc­tic pro­duc­tion costs, and has watched dirty gas become a major ener­gy source fol­low­ing a frack­ing boom in states like North Dako­ta and Penn­syl­va­nia. The holy grail of Alaska’s drill-baby-drill politi­cians may turn out to be a dry hole.

Cantwell has fought a three-front war in Alas­ka. She has tried to hold up drilling in the Arc­tic Refuge, orga­nized the defense of Bris­tol Bay’s fish­ery, and sought to block the Trump admin­is­tra­tion from dump­ing the Road­less Rule and open­ing old-growth trees of the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est to indus­tri­al logging.

Joe Biden greets Maria Cantwell
Then Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden greets Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell at a cam­paign event in Octo­ber 2014 (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Cantwell is a busy law­mak­er. She sits on three A‑list com­mit­tees – Finance, Com­merce and Energy/Natural Resources – as well as less­er pan­els. She is a pol­i­cy wonk who tries to one-up aides work­ing on issues that inter­est her. She knows the Methow, from vis­its to Tom & Sonya Campion’s land at Maza­ma. On a trip to the Arc­tic Refuge, she has wit­nessed America’s great­est wilderness.

An anec­dote from the trip: Cantwell was using a spot­ting scope to find wildlife on a slope across the riv­er. She spot­ted a bar­ren ground griz­zly bear at the bot­tom of the slope, gazed upward and saw a wolverine.

“Is this unusu­al?” asked Cantwell.

It’s Cantwell who is unusual.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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One reply on “Senator Maria Cantwell: Defender of Bristol Bay salmon and wild places in America”

  1. Thank you Sen­a­tor Cantwell and keep up the great work!!

    Also, thank you Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate and NPI for all your great work!

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