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A dam in the wilderness, a Legislature out of control, and Rep. Lindsey Holmes

Bill Sherwonit
Courtesy: Alaska Democratic Party

Two thoughts flashed through my head as I read the front-page story earlier this week, Senate bill would undo state park wilderness restrictions.” First, thank goodness for Jimmy Carter and the federal government’s large landholdings in Alaska, which prevent such things from happening in most of our state’s wilderness. Second, does Rep. Lindsey Holmes truly “share a common vision of Alaska” with the Republican Party? Has she been paying attention to what her colleagues have been doing since she switched allegiances?

Over the past several weeks, the legislature’s ruling party has been busy confirming my belief that in Alaska there’s simply too huge a gulf between the two parties, on any number of issues, for someone elected as a Democrat to suddenly feel an affinity for the GOP, which more than ever seems determined to ignore -- and in some cases, assault -- the larger public good.

Though I voted for Holmes, I happen to be an independent, nonpartisan sort far from the center (and on many issues way to the left) of Alaska’s Democrats and thus not privy to the party’s inner workings or strategies. But like everyone paying the least bit of attention to her defection, I’d heard rumblings of a recall effort. So I wasn’t completely surprised to read in the Alaska Dispatch that there’s now an organized “grassroots” movement, Recall Lindsey Holmes, to pursue such an action. While I already have way too much on my own political plate to join the organized effort, if it comes to a vote I plan to participate. And the next time Lindsey’s on the ballot, she surely won’t get my vote, for reasons that many other disenchanted constituents have already spelled out.

Shock and dismay

Whether Holmes is stunned -- or even mildly surprised -- by the shenanigans her Republican cohorts are up to, I’ll admit my own shock and dismay at what’s been happening in Juneau. But maybe I’m simply naïve in that I couldn’t imagine the scope of what the legislature’s Republican majority has been planning. It sure seems to be doing its best to get away with as much shameful behavior as quickly as possible, before Alaskans know what hit them.

Less than two months into the session, the Republican-dominated House and Senate have introduced legislation that ranges from outrageously laughable -- for instance House Speaker Mike Chenault’s measure that calls for criminal penalties against those who try to enforce federal firearms regulations -- to disturbing, especially in the manner bills are being rushed, or shoved, through the legislature. You have to wonder what Holmes -- who describes herself as “left-leaning” on social issues -- thinks about the push for school vouchers that would allow public funding for private schools; or Sen. John Coghill’s determined effort to redefine “medically necessary abortion.” The way those bills are moving through the Senate, it’s only a matter of time before they reach the House and Holmes gets to show how socially liberal she remains.

Already both the Senate and House -- with Holmes casting a yes vote -- have passed legislation that lowers cruise ship pollution-control standards that Alaskans approved in 2006. Do you think anyone who voted for Holmes last November believed she would support legislation that negated an earlier citizens’ vote requiring higher treatment standards for the sewage that cruise ships dump into our coastal waters? Say it ain’t so, Lindsey.

And what about the renewed and concerted effort -- spearheaded by Republicans -- to lower the taxes that oil companies pay to the state, without any assurance such a move will lead to increased exploration and development? When it comes to a vote, are you going to support the best interests of Alaskans or corporations, Lindsey?

So now we come to the latest fiasco, SB 32, sponsored by Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican. According to the Daily News, McGuire’s bill would eliminate wilderness restrictions -- i.e., protections -- in part of Wood-Tikchik State Park so a hydroelectric study can be conducted, with the goal of eventually damming a wild river in the midst of now-protected wilderness.

As it happens, I’ve had the good fortune to explore Wood-Tikchik and I’ve written about it in a couple of books. I’ve learned first-hand why this 1.6-million-acre park -- the largest state park in the United States -- is considered one of the gems of Alaska’s State Parks system (and the nation). I’m also aware that since the late 1990s, great effort has gone into protecting the wild integrity of this place, through a land-trust effort to buy private inholdings and/or create conservation easements, to prevent development that could threaten the park’s wild landscape and waters and its renowned populations of fish, especially rainbow trout and salmon. The story of that effort is too long to repeat here, but is examined in the book Wood-Tikchik: Alaska’s Largest State Park.

Much remains to be learned about the proposed hydroelectric project and the damming of Chikuminuk Lake, where it feeds into the Allen River. A Native-owned corporation and utility “cooperative” pushing the project reportedly say that electricity generated by the dam would go to Bethel and 13 surrounding communities, via a 120-mile power line. But some skeptics suspect the proposed Pebble Mine may be a more likely -- and geographically much closer -- beneficiary, if the state allows its development. Makes sense to me.

I’ll likely have more to say about this assault on Wood-Tikchik’s wild riches as more information becomes available. But for now I’ll simply add my voice to others who’ve expressed their opposition, and their outrage that the legislature would even consider compromising and diminishing one of Alaska’s premier wilderness parklands -- a state, not federal, park.

It’s not surprising that Tim Troll, who’s worked for years to protect Wood-Tikchik’s wilderness -- and its world-class fisheries -- says, “We feel a little betrayed.” There’s a fair amount of that going around these days.

Troll, director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, also had this to say about the 160-acre allotment that his trust purchased to keep as wilderness parkland and which now is targeted by the developers: “We thought that if it was in a state park and it had a management council, that it was protected forever. And now it seems that maybe that’s not the case. It’s the message that we’re worried about, and whether any state park now in Alaska is permanent.”

It’s a question worth considering, given the regressive regime that currently controls Alaska’s politics: Are any of Alaska’s state parks -- or for that matter state wildlife sanctuaries or environmental protections -- permanent? Current efforts seem intended to dismantle protections, not preserve them. So yes, I once again thank Jimmy Carter and the U.S. Congress, which had the foresight to set aside much of Alaska in federally managed parklands, wildlife refuges, and forests. The Alaska Lands Act at least assures us that broad swaths of our state remain protected from corporate greed and political complicity to that greed. I wonder what Lindsey Holmes thinks about that.

Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications (both traditional and online) and is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness" and "Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness," the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He has closely followed and written about Alaska's wilderness and politics since the mid-1980s.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.