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Newly formed Alaska Conservation Trust pushes for more resource extraction

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 16, 2015

A newly formed nonprofit group called the Alaska Conservation Trust says it wants to boost the state's resource extraction industry, and one of its leaders refers to the group as "the little guy" in a fight against environmentalists.

The name and mission might sound contradictory, but that's only because the term conservation has been "hijacked" by the environmental movement, said Greg Bell, ACT's president.

"Conservation doesn't mean don't touch anything," Bell, who's also the owner of Valley Sawmill, said in an interview. "It just means wise use of the land."

Since its formation late last year, Bell's group has filed a series of public comments on Shell's Arctic drilling program and on proposed endangered species protections for humpback whales and yellow cedar trees.

It also hired a part-time staff member two months ago: Curtis Thayer, who was former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell's commissioner of administration and an aide to U.S. Rep. Don Young.

The group received its federal nonprofit tax status a month ago, and is raising money to support its involvement in the regulatory process and in lawsuits on behalf of the oil and gas, mining, and timber industries.

"There needs to be somebody to say, 'Here's our views on this,' and to participate in the public process," Thayer said.

ACT is one of the latest groups to engage in the ongoing debate surrounding resource development and habitat protection in Alaska -- a debate that might be more accurately characterized as a melee.

Proposed development projects and permits are often met by lawsuits from environmental organizations or slowed by federal regulators, while proposed protections are typically challenged by corporations, pro-development groups, or the state government.

Thayer and Bell, in an interview at an Anchorage bagel shop, argued that the environmental groups were stifling development in the state and making it difficult to create or keep jobs. Bell, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, energetically outlined his view that small businesses and "the little guy," especially in the timber industry, were being overwhelmed by "the other side."

He said he'd been inspired to create the group after one environmental group, Cook Inletkeeper, sued to stop construction of a rail line to Port Mackenzie in the Mat-Su, citing the project's costs and impacts on salmon habitat.

Two other groups with similar names -- Alaska Conservation Voters and the Alaska Conservation Foundation -- both declined to comment on ACT's formation.

In a phone interview, Bob Shavelson, Cook Inletkeeper's executive director, said ACT was guilty of "greenwashing" -- a term used to describe when companies or groups misleadingly claim environmental virtue.

And he said Bell's claims about environmental groups drowning out pro-development interests were "absolutely baseless."

"If you tried to line up all the money that goes into extractive development and you put it against the revenues that you see for nonprofit groups that are looking to promote a more sustainable lifestyle here, the scale would tilt sharply towards the for-profit corporations," Shavelson said.

Thayer and Bell wouldn't reveal ACT's own sources of money, though they said the group is recruiting paying members. It's still in "start-up" mode, Thayer said, and doesn't even have a website yet.

Nonetheless, the group has already submitted public comments on several federal rules and proposals. In July, Thayer urged regulators considering endangered species listings for humpback whales to balance protections with businesses and jobs "that depend on our oceans for livelihoods, such as fishing, tourism, or oil and gas exploration."

The group took a different view in a comment in December on federal policies for commercial filming in designated wilderness. In a slap to the film industry, which conservatives often consider too liberal, it said the U.S. Forest Service should bar commercial enterprises of all kinds in those areas.

"Alaska Conservation Trust thinks freedom of the press is secondary to protecting the wilderness and shouldn't be used as an excuse to degrade the law for further exploitation of our priceless heritage," the comment said, comparing the impact of a five-person commercial film crew to a two-person drilling crew.

And in July, Bell proposed an unorthodox plan to help with the recovery for the Cook Inlet population of beluga whales. Since attacks by killer whales are problematic, Bell wrote, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should simply "intervene in predation."

"Even one beluga whale from a small population killed each year from killer whales is problematic," Bell wrote.

Most conservationists, however, use the term "orca" instead of killer whale. The animal is a member of the dolphin family.

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