Leaders should pause pursuit of ANWR development to listen to Alaska's future

Of all the places in the world, Alaska is at the very forefront of climate change and its enormous impacts. And of all the people in Alaska, youth are the most affected by climate change, loss of wilderness, and severe, looming environmental dangers. In fact, imminent destruction of wildlife and wilderness, increased pollution and carbon output, and the frightening prognosis of climate change are among the most important issues currently facing Alaska's young people.

And we deserve to have our voices heard.

It's true we can't vote; in this regard, we are silenced. But talk of "the future" and maintaining Alaska's beauty, character and integrity for "tomorrow's generation" is constantly touted as a major priority. Well, there are steps that can be taken to pass on the best possible situation for the leaders and inhabitants of tomorrow: protect what natural treasures and wilderness we have left and work to repair the damage we have caused to our surroundings. Most of all, there needs to be a commitment to an earnest effort to change the human trajectory to one of increased sustainability and environmental well being.

When Interior Secretary Sally Jewell attended the Alaska Federation of Natives' winter retreat in Kotzebue on Feb. 17, she was faced by many state politicians, including Gov. Bill Walker, nine state lawmakers and the Alaska congressional delegation. These elected officials are angered by the federal government's recommendations to designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness and declare parts of the Arctic Ocean off-limits to oil and gas development. They wanted to inform Jewell of their opposition -- the Legislature has even passed House Joint Resolutions 9 and 10 denouncing such protections -- in the belief that Alaska's future could be harmed.

I am immensely grateful that Alaska lawmakers are devoted to furthering the best interests of our state to ensure Alaska's stability and prosperity. However, Alaska youth have an alternative perspective on Alaska's best interests. Many of us have been fortunate enough to experience the magnificence and individuality of our shared home at a young age, and will hopefully continue to inhabit and cherish Alaska for as long as we live. With so much unrealized resource development potential currently available on lands already designated for that purpose, why must we target the nation's largest wildlife refuge and currently undeveloped regions of the Arctic Ocean? Might Alaska's best interest be better realized if wilderness protection and climate change mitigation were prioritized?

These are questions some young Alaskans have tried to answer. Teens from various high schools in Anchorage and in Yakutat, representing "the undersigned youth of Alaska," drafted a document welcoming Secretary Jewell and expressing gratitude for her "commitment toward the youth of today and tomorrow." The letter specifically emphasized our reliance on wilderness and the land as well as our responsibility to protect it. In addition, the document recognized the unique and extremely important role young people must play in preserving and enhancing wild places and environmental health in general with a balanced approach. Over 60 students signed the letter, and it was delivered by a West High School student attending the meeting in Kotzebue.

For Alaska's next generation, actions such as the preservation of ANWR instead of oil and gas development -- which not only leaves lasting effects on the immediate surroundings, but contributes to the advancement of climate change -- are an enduring victory.


Last year, Alaska Youth for Environmental Action's (AYEA) statewide youth campaign was centered on climate change. Their goals included community empowerment for climate change advocacy, increased climate and energy education across Alaska and encouraging the state Legislature to address climate change and pass "bold climate policy." These actions illustrate a youth voice seeking solutions for responsible and balanced development.

Climate change and environmental degradation are such critical and fundamental issues that nearly all other concerns pale in comparison. Without a functioning and vital natural world, jobs, our economy and numerous other very real and important matters will take the back burner once we realize the alarming predicament we have made for ourselves.

If warming trends in recent years -- in which satisfactory skiing has become a rare luxury and 45 degrees in February in Anchorage is unsurprising -- have told us anything, it's that climate change is happening now and is only predicted to accelerate. I'm not a fan of this new reality, and poor skiing conditions are just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg.

Alaska's young people and future leaders are ready and willing to be engaged participants in constructing the world we want to live in. The consequences are dire if we do not take immediate action. I realize that natural resource development is essential to our state's economy, and hope this can be managed in the most efficient and mutually beneficial way possible for Alaskans. With cooperation from Alaska's current leaders and a shared goal of a healthy future, we can tackle some of the most daunting issues of our collective existence. The voices of Alaska youth are rising, and we're excited to be part of the solution.

Barae Hirsch is a student at West High School. She is participating in an Anchorage School District Gifted Mentorship Program at Alaska Dispatch News.

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

Barae Hirsch

Barae Hirsch is a student at West High School.