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.
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.
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.
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.