Esther Wunnicke died on March 19. She was a public servant and a community volunteer who gave her talents, her energy and her heart to making Alaska a better place for the past 50 years.
She managed both federal and state resource agencies, thereby playing a significant role in shaping the landscape of Alaska's land laws and resource policies.
- She started her career in 1966 at the Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska, co-authoring "Alaska Natives and the Land," which became the analytic foundation for the Native land settlement.
- In 1977 she was appointed by President Carter to be Federal Co-Chair of the Joint Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission, responsible for identifying 80 million acres of lands for federal conservation units.
- In 1980 she became U.S. Minerals Management Services (MMS) director for Alaska's off shore oil and gas development. And in 1983 Gov. Bill Sheffield appointed her to serve as the state commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, where she presided as the "Land Lady of Alaska."
Some of the largest land management and environmental laws in the history of the United States were enacted in the 1970s and 1980s. Esther's role was to determine what the new laws meant and to manage the changes they caused in Alaska.
"Esther was a clarion voice in articulating a path forward for Native land claims," said Judy Brady, who worked on the implementation of the Native claims settlement and followed Esther as commissioner of Natural Resources. "She also balanced resource management on state and federal lands -- often a contentious process -- and created the structure for evaluating oil and gas development both on and off shore. Her contributions were huge."
Esther's colleague in the Cabinet, Eleanor Andrews, the commissioner of Administration said, "Esther's knowledge of the law, her true respect for the opinion of others, her insistence on civil discourse, and her ability to articulate a reasonable and just outcome earned her the admiration of everyone she worked with."
Her friend and former state Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski said, "In both her professional career and community leadership Esther served as a role model of inclusion. She balanced the interests of all Alaskans by assessing the economic, environmental and social consequences of resource decisions."
This concept was echoed by her colleague Joe Josephson.
"In this time of increased polarization, we would do well to think about a person like Esther, who saw public policy issues as opportunities to reflect upon our common interests and our common humanity," Josephson said.
She managed her staff by inspiring them.
"As one of the first in her generation of women to become a successful lawyer and policymaker, she had a special influence on young women contemplating a professional career," said John Katz, her colleague. "Her legacy will live on through the generations of Alaskans whom she mentored and inspired."
This role was reflected in the experience of Fran Ulmer, former lieutenant governor.
"I was working for Gov. Hammond when I met Esther and she took the time to explain federal/state land management issues, and how unique Alaska was compared to the Lower 48," Ulmer said. "As a young newcomer, I felt I had found a gold mine of information/insight/advice in Esther. This has been true for all the decades I have known her."
Another person guided by Esther was Jane Angvik, former state director of the Division of Lands.
"Esther believed in an open public process, rigor in the evaluation of data and, also demanded unassailable integrity in decisions about the allocation of Alaska's resources," Angvik said. "She led by example in this regard."
In retirement, Esther's desire for social and economic justice was demonstrated by her service on the board of Bean's Café and in creating Alaska Common Ground as a forum for discourse on policy issues.
The wisdom of her many years of public service is written into the laws and public policies of Alaska and the United States. We are grateful for the bountiful presence of Esther Wunnicke in our lives.
Jane Angvik is a former state director of the Division of Lands. Judy Brady is a former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and former head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Eleanor Andrews ran the state Department of Administration and served in the same Cabinet with Esther Wunnicke. Arliss Sturgulewski is a former state senator and candidate for governor. Fran Ulmer served as lieutenant governor and chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and also was a candidate for governor.