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Alaska Center for the Environment drops 'Environment' from name. So what is it for?

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 2, 2016
  • Published November 2, 2016

The Alaska Center for the Environment is no more.

After a merger, a changed mission and a new name that leaves out the word "environment," Southcentral Alaska no longer has a regional environmental organization. Instead, the new The Alaska Center is focusing on politics and a set three statewide issues — salmon, clean energy and democracy — with pitches that often omit mention of conservation.

Environmentalists think the change will increase their power, swaying elections with more sophisticated marketing, more money on campaigns, and an appeal to people who don't like the word "environment," as polling apparently suggests, but who do like salmon and clean energy. They are probably right.

But something important is missing. The center survived for 45 years as an ornery, granola-crunching voice for what mattered to locals in Anchorage and around our region — for parks, public lands and wildlife, stopping freeways and cleaning up the air, and whatever mattered at the moment.

That voice is gone. And what is coming after I find profoundly uninspiring. Tactically honed messages may win elections, but they don't touch the heart.

The change also poses a practical problem for people who care about public lands in our region. They are facing major issues with no organization to unite them or fight at their side.

The Alaska Center for the Environment started in the early 1970s, said Helen Nienhueser, one of its founders. National environmental organizations were working in Anchorage, but Alaskans who wanted a voice in the historic federal land battles of the period had nowhere to meet.

"There wasn't such a place at that time," she said. "Things ran out of people's living rooms."

The little organization had big impact. It helped stop a network of freeways in Anchorage that would have run along the Hillside and the shore, obliterating the open spaces that now define the city.

My closest involvement came in the early 1990s. Mayor Tom Fink pushed a land swap giving woods around the Coastal Trail to the Anchorage International Airport in exchange for the school site for Kincaid Elementary. It was a bad deal and would have ruined the trail, but he jammed the ordinance through as an emergency measure.

I lost that battle as a member of the Anchorage Assembly, but encouraged The Alaska Center for the Environment to start an initiative petition to freeze the swap until the next election. The center's petition drive stopped it long enough for Mayor Rick Mystrom to come into office and make a better deal — one that took care of the airport, the school and the trail.

Without a community-based Alaska Center for the Environment, we would have lost the trail as we know it.

But times change. Environmentalists lost a lot of elections. The 2008 financial crisis made them fear for their funding. The old center seemed to be out of date and losing steam. Leaders thought merging organizations could make them more efficient.

Three years ago, organizations combined, putting together Alaska Conservation Voters with the Alaska Center for the Environment, the center's Trailside Discovery Camp and the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action. Different legal entities oversee the political and educational work under the same name.

They tried to include regional environmental groups in Juneau and Fairbanks, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, who declined to join. As a result, those areas still have organizations working on issues of local concern, but Southcentral Alaska does not.

The Alaska Center director Polly Carr said the center will continue to address Southcentral issues when they affect salmon, clean energy or democracy — which could mean public process. She points to a successful fight against a measure known as House Bill 77 that would have reduced public input on water issues.

She said the center needed to modernize.

"Organizations need to change," Carr said. "They need to evolve. We are in a different time. We're in a different society, economy, environmental landscape, and we need to adapt to that."

Currently, the center is campaigning for Ballot Measure 1, which would link voter registration to the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, along with allies including BP and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. Any of those allies could have produced the Alaska Center's campaign materials, which target reducing government bureaucracy but say nothing about conservation.

Alaska Democrats have adopted much the same strategy by advancing candidates who say they aren't Democrats. That might work for a while, but it won't build a base of support.

The National Rifle Association didn't win its cause by changing its name to the National Association and saying it was for security, recreation and democracy — it led gun owners fighting for guns rights.

Besides, many critical environmental issues don't affect salmon, clean energy or democracy, and that leaves a huge void.

Nienhueser would like to see the center work on transportation issues and Chugach State Park funding and management. Cliff Eames, who worked for the center for 20 years, said Chugach National Forest's management plan is being rewritten — deciding wilderness designation for 1.9 million acres of Prince William Sound — with little attention from professional environmentalists.

Both praised the center's current work. Carr's team of politically savvy organizers and fundraisers could win elections and have already dramatically increased the center's funding and base of supporters.

But as local environmentalists, we're back to 1970. Many important issues, if they are addressed at all, will be worked on in people's living rooms.

And I have another concern.

If environmentalists really care about protecting wild places, as I do, we should say so loudly.

For me, loving the best part of Alaska isn't about salmon or clean energy. It's much deeper and more encompassing. The special places that feed my spirit don't necessarily give me salmon to eat. I'm moved by the wilderness of Knight Island, not by the concept of clean energy.

The best hope for the environment is to awaken these deeper feelings in more Alaskans so we want to act, not to pretend we're talking about something else.

The views expressed here are the writer's 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. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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