The United States Department of Interior manages roughly 198 million acres of federally owned lands in Alaska, a block that is 10 percent larger than the entire state of Texas. So, it is only fitting that two Alaskans – Robert Gillam and former governor Sarah Palin – are being floated as contenders for secretary of Interior as President-elect Donald Trump builds his cabinet.
“Over 50 percent of our nation’s federally protected lands are located in Alaska. This is why it makes so much sense for an Alaskan to lead the Department of the Interior and champion our great state while guiding our nation,” Gillam explained in a written statement explaining his interest in the job.
While both of these candidates would likely be more open to access and development of federal lands in Alaska than current Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, Alaska’s mining community would much rather see Palin take the job, or someone from outside of the state, than to have Gillam hold such a high post in the Trump Administration.
Gillam aspirationsWhile Gillam may not be a household name, as founder and CEO of McKinley Capital Management, an Anchorage-based advisory firm that manages roughly US$6.7 billion in investments, he is well known in Alaska business and political circles.
Though Gillam has little in the way of political experience, he believes President-elect Trump’s endeavor to fill his cabinet with savvy American’s outside the typical Washington D.C. political circles provides him with an opportunity to cap his successful business career with a high-level political post.
“I woke up on November 9th and realized that America voted for a change in Washington; one that perhaps favored outsiders as opposed to career politicians. I recognized that suddenly it was possible for me to serve in a role that has otherwise been one of career politicians and people (many of them talented of course) looking to use the job as a stepping stone,” he explained in a statement provided by his son, also Robert Gillam.
The fact that Gillam and Trump are both Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania alma mater does not hurt the Alaska businessman’s chances of gaining a post in the incoming administration.
Gillam told Alaska Dispatch News that he had been in touch with Trump over the course of the election.
Since his college days, Gillam has amassed roughly US$320 million, enough wealth for Forbes Magazine to deem him the richest man in Alaska in 2015. The financial advisor believes the business savvy that elevated him to this status could be applied to the management of America’s public lands.
“I consider land development like the professional investor that I have been all of my career, and carefully measure the cost versus the benefit of each decision,” he explained.
Anti-Pebble pushWhile Alaska’s mining community can appreciate a business approach to land management, they are concerned that Gillam would use any influence gained in Washington D.C. to further one of his personal goals, stopping the enormous Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska.
From 2006 through 2008, Gillam directly spent US$820,000 on Ballot Measure 4 in the 2008 Alaska primary election and evidence suggests his contributions were in the millions when you include the monies he donated to groups that in turn funded advertising campaigns supporting the anti-Pebble initiative.
Ballot Measure 4, also dubbed the Clean Water Initiative, was crafted to prevent development of the world-class Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum deposit. If passed, however, the stipulations of the measure would have made it difficult to permit large scale metal mines across much of Alaska.
It is believed that Gillam’s motivation for preventing development of a mine at Pebble is the beautiful home he maintains about 25 miles away from the proposed mine site in Southwest Alaska. This wilderness retreat on the shores of Lake Clark was used as a meeting place for anti-Pebble planning and as a perk for big contributors to the “Yes on 4” campaign, according to a complaint with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, alleging Gillam violated campaign law.
The complaint was put to rest after Gillam paid US$100,000 in a 2010 settlement with APOC.
In a separate case, APOC fined an air service owned by Gillam US$25,500 for charging anti-Pebble candidates only the cost of fuel for flights, an illegal contribution that could change the outcome of the initiative, according to the election watchdog group.
Though Ballot Measure 4 failed by a healthy margin, Gillam’s role in promoting and funding the initiative put him at odds with Alaska’s mining sector.
The investment manager, however, chalks up the experience as qualifying experience for his aspirations to serve as secretary of Interior.
“In the course of my life, and the many years I spent working on the Stop Pebble Mine initiative, I have learned a tremendous amount about our nation’s land and the people who rely on it,” he inked in his statement.
Palin on the listWhile Gillam’s bid for secretary of Interior has gone virtually unnoticed outside of Alaska, former governor Palin’s name has been in play for the post since Trump’s victory in the general election.
Interestingly enough, Palin was still serving as Alaska’s governor when Ballot Measure 4 was put before state voters.
On the day before the Alaska primary election, Palin took off her governor’s hat and threw it in the ring opposed to the anti-Pebble measure.
“Let me take my governor’s hat off just for a minute here and tell you, personally, Prop 4, I vote ‘No’ on that. I have all the confidence in the world that the Department of Environmental Conservation and our Department of Natural Resources have great, very stringent regulations and policies already in place. We’re going to make sure that mines operate only safely, and soundly,” Palin said.
The governor’s remarks echoed the sentiment of leaders from more than a dozen cities and boroughs, the majority of Alaska Native corporation leaders – with the noted exception of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which did not take a public position on the issue – as well as various business associations, including the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Alaska Auto Dealers Association and Alaska Forest Association.
Three days after the primary, then Republican presidential candidate John McCain announced Palin as his pick as Republican running mate during his 2008 bid for the White House.
Though the McCain-Palin ticket lost to President Barack Obama in the general election, the campaign put the former Alaska governor in the national spotlight. Since that time, Palin has remained a player in national politics with her support of conservative candidates, a move that has put her in consideration for a role in the Trump Administration.
While the former Alaska governor is considered to be pretty far down on Trump’s shortlist of candidates for secretary of Interior, her notoriety as a fiery pro-development conservative has environmentalists concerned.
As vice presidential nominee, Palin famously used the phrase “Drill baby drill!” as a mantra for more oil and gas production in the United States.
This call for increased domestic petroleum included a call for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move some Alaskans see as an answer to the dwindling flow of oil through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which has the ability to transport more than 2 million barrels of oil per day.
Palin also coined the phrase “Mine baby mine!” during the 2008 presidential campaign, as a show of her support coal mining and the sector at large.
Likely contendorsWhile Gillam and Palin are in the conversation, most pundits have non-Alaskans higher on the list of potential candidates to run the Department of Interior.
Those considered more likely to lead Interior are: Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who was named vice-chair to Trump’s transition team on Nov. 29; Robert Grady, a venture capitalist who served in the George H.W. Bush White House as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget for Natural Resources, Energy and Science; Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, known for pioneering the development of the large shale oil resources of the Bakken formation and ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 98th richest person in the world; and Forrest Lucas, co-founder of Lucas Oil Products.
Whomever Trump picks to lead the Department of Interior, that person will be charged with overseeing nine land and resource-management bureaus, most of which have some bearing on mining in Alaska.
In addition to the two major federal land managers, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, Department of Interior oversees regulators such as the Bureau of Reclamation, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Last but not least for the mining sector, U.S. Geological Survey falls under the Interior umbrella.
While secretary of Interior may not be highest profile position in the Trump cabinet, with nearly 200 million acres of federal lands in Alaska and so many resource-related bureaus under its control, this post is important to Alaska’s mining community.