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Steve Haycox: Alaska isn't so hostile to environmentalists anymore

Steve Haycox

Brock Evans is president of the Endangered Species Coalition, a national network of conservation, outdoor, community and other groups working to protect the nation's disappearing wildlife and wild places, and the Endangered Species Act itself. In the late 1960s he worked in Seattle for the Sierra Club, as the Northwest representative; his area of responsibility included Alaska. In the early 1970s he headed the Sierra Club's new Washington, D.C., office, lobbying Congress to block authorization of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, a fight environmentalists lost. Later he was a vice-president of the Audubon Society. He has recently published a new book titled, "Fight & Win: Brock Evans' Strategies for the New Eco-Warrior." The Alaska Coalition, first formed to pursue Congressional protection of environmentally significant lands in Alaska, may have been the model for the Endangered Species Coalition.

When he worked in Seattle, Evans traveled to Alaska often and met with such groups as the new Sitka Conservation Society and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. In an oral interview he relates an incident he learned about on one of those trips. A nurse working at a private clinic, a recent new member of the Sierra Club, did volunteer work traveling to Native villages to assist village health aides. Returning from one such trip she found short a letter from the clinic administrator: "I understand you've been hanging out with that there Sierra Club, or some such group. You're fired!"

Environmentalists have often been pariahs in their communities in Alaska, but never to the extent they were during the pipeline battle and later, during the struggle over the Alaska lands act of 1980 (ANILCA). Alaskans committed to an exclusive development viewpoint have sometimes socially shunned environmental activists, and those who have worked from an environmental perspective have sometimes had to suppress knowledge of their organizational affiliations in order to keep their jobs and their community relations.

And it's not only private citizens who've been the brunt of developmental angst and anger in Alaska. In 1978 when President Carter and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus withdrew millions of acres of Alaska land in monument status in an attempt to force Congress to produce an Alaska lands act, and dispatched conservation managers to administer the withdrawals, some residents in Eagle posted signs warning that the citizens there "cannot be responsible for the safety of federal employees." Elsewhere, one federal manager found his vehicle torched.

There is in Alaska, of course, an old tradition of resentment of federal regulators. But the demographics of the state have changed over 40 years, partly because of Alaska's high transiency rate. Many newer residents are far more supportive of environmental protection than were a majority of Alaskans a generation ago. Many who reached their maturity Outside endorse the wilderness idea, the notion that significant amounts of unmanipulated land should be preserved and passed to future generations simply for its pristine and spiritual qualities.

While development enthusiasts and many state politicians have continued to rail against constraints imposed through ANILCA, Alaska has prospered despite the act, partly due to the many exceptions to regulation written into it, and ecotourism brings increasing numbers of dollars into the state each year. There is much less opprobrium directed against environmentalism than ever before.

Nor are environmentalists without resources, as recent legal and media battles have demonstrated. The more than $10 million the Moore Foundation is rumored to have contributed to the anti-Pebble fight is a case in point. Groups such as Trustees for Alaska and the Alaska Conservation Foundation receive grants from a variety of organizations and individuals interested in Alaska's environment.

A number of substantive environmental battles loom on Alaska's horizon in addition to Pebble, including Chuitna coal, Watana dam, Matanuska Valley coal, offshore oil, and as always, the Arctic Refuge. But today most Alaskans seem far more open to a balanced approach to Alaska resource development than in the past, and thus more willing to work with environmentalists toward responsible development and permanent protection of Alaska's "environmental crown jewels." Officers of Alaska's environmental organizations now publish their names on their websites without fear of ostracism or worse. And Brock Evans will be happy to know that the Alaska chapter of "that there" club is thriving.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.


Steve Haycox
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