From a federal bill to ensure smooth sailing for Alaska-bound cruise ships to legislation for studying medical cannabis to help military veterans, here are five things to know in Alaska politics.
Ship-shape cruise season is Alaska delegation priority
Cruise ships bound for Alaska may not have to drop anchor in Canada under the proposed Alaska Tourism Recovery Act.
The federal bill allows cruise ships sailing between Washington state and Alaska to temporarily forgo an arcane provision of the 1800s Passenger Vessel Services Act requiring a foreign port stopover. An exemption to the rule, offered by Alaska’s delegation, is critical for Alaska’s cruise season to launch in 2021 — and to the state’s $3 billion tourism economy from cruise ships.
Canada’s ports are closed to U.S. cruise line traffic until 2022 over concerns about Covid-19.
Having a cruise ship season this summer is a priority for Alaska’s members of Congress.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan introduced the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act. Rep. Don Young sponsored companion legislation in the House.
There is a lot at stake. In 2019, more than 1 million cruise ship passengers visited Alaska. In 2020, during the Covid crisis, there were 48.
“A lot of people don’t think about cruise ships as being an essential activity during a pandemic,” Murkowski said. “In our state, where so much of our economy is just based on tourism, it’s an imperative; it is jobs, it is livelihoods, and it really is what allows our small communities to keep their doors open.”
Commercial cruise lines with Alaska voyages include Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.
The Alaska Tourism Recovery Act needs Senate support to advance. That is not a guarantee.
At issue are Democrat-backed provisions requiring cruise lines to have defibrillators on board and to return the remains of passengers who die on ocean trips.
Cruise lines employ a medical staff and carry defibrillators, though it is not a mandate.
CruiseCritic.com reports that “neither the consulate nor the cruise line pays for anything related to bringing a loved one home; they only help the family make arrangements. And repatriation, with all its necessary paperwork and hassle, is not inexpensive.”
GOP Rep. Mike Lee of Utah objected to the provisions, calling them “poison pills” that will defeat the bill. He described the provisions as “duplicative, unnecessary and unrelated.”
Sullivan and Murkowski are hopeful a compromise can be cobbled together.
“To our fellow Alaskans, my message is: Don’t give up,” Sullivan said.
“We are going to continue to fight, and continue to try to move this,” he said. “Do not give up, Alaska, on our summer tourism season. We haven’t.”
Russia increases Arctic activity
U.S. military leaders warn that the Russian military is intensifying activities in the Arctic region near Alaska.
The Russian military is spending “hours” in airspace near Alaska, the head of North American Aerospace Defense Command said.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck said “Russia is trying to reassert on a global stage their influence and their capabilities,” the U.S. Naval Institute News reported.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan told NBC News that he wants “more muscle in the North,” because of activities in the Arctic by Russia and China.
Officials at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson responded to Russian activity over North America’s west coast, with Alaska crews intercepting more than 60 Russian aircraft in 2020, according to the Air Force Times.
“That’s the most action the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone — a region spanning 200 nautical miles that reaches past U.S. territory and into international airspace — has seen since the Soviet Union fell in 1991,” the Air Force Times said.
The Air Force Times described the Arctic region as a “growing hotspot of domestic and military activity.”
Alaska combat training prioritized
Russia and China’s activities in the Arctic are prompting the U.S. Army to consider another combat training center in Alaska.
The Northern Warfare Training Center is based at Fort Wainwright and is the Army’s major location for cold-region combat training.
The Army’s newly released Arctic strategy, “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” identifies the need to develop a “two-star level headquarters” for leading combat brigades, according to Military.com.
The brigades have specialized training for combat in the harsh Arctic climate.
Sullivan seeks cannabis clinical trials
Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and Democrat Sen. Jon Tester of Montana are sponsoring legislation directing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to explore the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis for military veterans.
The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act directs the VA to test medicinal cannabis as treatment for chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), conditions veterans often experience.
“The devastating nationwide opioid epidemic has clearly shown we need to find alternatives to these medications for the treatment of pain, and that’s certainly a priority I’ve heard from many of the veterans I represent in Alaska,” Sullivan said.
“Medicinal cannabis is already in use by thousands of veterans across the country, but we don’t yet have the data we need to understand the potential benefits and side effects associated with this alternative therapy.”
Is a remote cabin home in your future?
Stating that he wants to “put Alaska land into Alaska hands,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced a bill that would make it easier and affordable for Alaskans to lease or buy recreational cabin sites.
Under 5% of Alaska land is privately owned, which is less than any other state, the governor’s office said in a press statement.
The governor’s bill would allow eligible Alaskans to buy or lease up to 10 acres of “vacant, unappropriated or unreserved state lands.”
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources would facilitate the sale or lease of parcels for remote recreational cabin sites.
Applicants would need to make a 5% down payment, cover the survey and appraisal and pay fair market value for the property. If leasing, the contracts could be converted to sales.
“While the state’s economy benefits from commercial resource development, this new legislation benefits individual Alaskans by expanding their opportunities to better enjoy our great outdoors by owning private recreational parcels,” said Corri Feige, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.
Contact Linda F. Hersey at 459-7575 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.