U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola recently made history by becoming the first Alaska Native person to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone house seat.
The longtime commercial fisherwoman – a Yup’ik Democrat from the Bethel region — filled the position earlier this year after winning a special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. Don Young, who died before the end of his 25th congressional term. Peltola solidified her place in the House of Representatives for a full term after winning her midterm race in November.
The Cordova Times interviewed the rising policymaker on a plethora of topics: from climate change and the Last Frontier’s geostrategic importance, to the challenges facing Alaska and what she is most excited about accomplishing while in Congress. This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Question: We see the impacts of climate change every day. In Cordova, the impacts of climate change on Sheridan Glacier come to mind. It has receded drastically over the last several years. How do you plan to address climate change in Congress, while taking into account Alaska’s unique relationship with resource development?
Peltola: This is a challenge … and no easy lift. In my opinion, for Alaskans this is our life’s work. I think that it is helpful to remember in the U.S., and especially in Alaska, we do resource development better and cleaner than anyone else on earth. I think that it is also important to remember that the most carbon intensive countries are the ones who are the most antagonistic towards us.
I think it’s in our best interest to create as much energy on U.S. soil as we can. I think it’s also really important to remember that even incremental improvement is improvement. Even if we have a 1.5 degree or 2 degree target, that is still worthy of working on … Right now, we are seeing a 20% lower carbon emission than we had 10 years ago. That is improvement. I don’t think most people hear this kind of moderately encouraging news enough.
One of the things that has helped us lower that carbon footprint is substituting natural gas for coal. Another huge improvement that we just saw with the inflation reduction act — before that act was passed, there was a goal of a 30% reduction by 2030, and after the inflation reduction act, now what we are going to be able actualize with some incentives within that legislation, we will be closer to seeing a 40% reduction by 2030. Having said all of that, it’s still only 40% and we still need to work as hard as we can… we are working on reducing emissions, affordable and stable energy prices, and making sure we have reliable energy.
Question: How will you work with fishing fleets to maintain their way of life despite climate and other pressures on our oceans?
Peltola: I think it’s important that we are making sure that every fishing community is engaging and offering solutions within their own fishing culture. Every user group and gear type have a lot of knowledge they can contribute. I think it’s really important that we are listening to everyone. I also want to emphasize that we need to be listening to and partnering with the industry.
Geological challenges and strategies
Question: What have you learned from your travels in Prince William Sound? What are the biggest challenges facing the region in your opinion?
Peltola: I think the Prince William Sound is a lot like the rest of the state in terms of challenges. Across Alaska, we are seeing inflation in terms of gas and diesel prices, (and) stagnant economic growth in all of our regions of Alaska. I have heard a lot of concerns in PWS about the concerns with the marine highway system — that is under the purview of the state, but I think there is plenty of room through federal funding for there to be improvements made to the marine highway system. I think that PWS, like all other parts of the state, are very concerned about the health of our oceans, the health of our fisheries, abundance at the levels that I grew up with, marine debris, ocean acidification, 1 degree or 2 degree temperature rise, we are all worried about those things.
Question: It’s my understanding that Alaska is of unique geostrategic importance to the U.S. How do you plan to communicate and leverage that while you’re in Congress?
Peltola: We are a very geostrategic location, and we have been neglecting the arctic for 20 years now. We need one Navy port if not two Navy ports, we need 20 ice breakers to keep up with Russia. They have very impressive ports that they have invested in over the last 10 and 20 years. We are very behind in this regard. I think that Dan Sullivan has been doing a full court press on this to get military funding invested in Alaska, and I will be working as hard as I can with him on the house side to see military investments again in Alaska.
Peltola also said she voted for the National Defense Authorization Act, which “included funding for the Coast Guard and one ice breaker.”
Question: Some of our brightest young people leave the state due to a lack of opportunities they see in Alaska. How would you plan to ensure our next generation stays in state?
Peltola: I think that we need to make sure we are investing in training programs and have projects lined up to utilize the trade work force that we are training. We need to make sure we are investing in quality housing, in that all our housing is affordable. I think that housing in Anchorage and every other community in Alaska is very pressing, and it’s that way in every part of the United States… A lot of young people leave their state because they want to go see the world… and I think that’s a good thing. That’s not to say that Alaskans won’t come back, we just need to make sure we have an economy that is attractive to them and provides livable wages for their families.
Question: What are you most excited about doing while serving as a representative of your home state of Alaska?
Peltola: I want to represent Alaska as well as I possibly can, and I have very big shoes to fill. Don Young dedicated his entire life to serving Alaskans and he did a really good job; he was so good at constituent relations. He made the pipeline happen; he busted it through the house of representatives when he was in his special election term. That transformed Alaska as we know it.
One of the things I think about a lot is that most governments, most structures, they rely on people paying taxes. Alaska is so wealthy; we haven’t required any broad-based tax. We are the one of the first governments in the history of the world to be so wealthy we could actually afford to pay people to live in our state. This brought us such tremendous wealth.
Then you look at Ted Stevens and the legacy of Ted Stevens: bypass mail, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, these really epic sweeping pieces of legislation that defined Alaska. I would love to have a legacy like that in 20 or 30 or 40 years. Right now, I just have to be thinking about this moment, my two-year term. I want to make sure I can get done as much as I can and represent Alaska as well as I can.