In May, 2019, on behalf of the Alaska Wilderness League (AWL), American Packrafting Association, and Protect Our Winters (POW), I spent a week in Washington DC, meeting with the staff of various members of Congress as an advocate for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Here is what I learned.
First off… the conservation community would strongly prefer people to refer to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by its full name, or “Arctic Refuge,” rather than “ANWR.” “Arctic Refuge” just sounds more compelling than “ANWR.”
I joined two of Alaska’s most accomplished adventurers for the trip: Brad Meiklejohn and Roman Dial.
Brad has visited the Arctic Refuge every year since 1981. He recently retired from directing the Alaska branch of the Conservation Fund. Brad is one of my go-to resources for discussions on loss, play, mental health, and conservation. I HIGHLY recommend the essay he wrote for Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Still On The Loose. Also, his excellent interview for Evan Phillips’ Firn Line podcast.
Roman needs no introduction on this site (but here is one anyway, from my time at APU). Roman has singlehandedly defined the rules and boundaries for human-powered adventure in Alaska. He has a great Firn Line episode too.
I grew up in McGrath, on the Kuskokwim River, left state for college and grad school (Geology, Geophysics) and do everything I can to see as much of Alaska as possible, under my own power. I bought my first suit for the trip to DC.
Roman, Brad, and I were asked to speak on behalf of the Arctic Refuge because, collectively, we have over 100 years and ~35,000 miles of human-powered backcountry adventure in Alaska. For all of us, the Arctic Refuge holds special status within Alaska, the nation, and the world. This is also a strategic move by the Ak Wilderness League, who would like to see more recreationists, local adventurers, more vocal about the Refuge and conservation in general. Like me, most non-native folks in Alaska take land access for granted, without recognizing that a bunch of people did a lot of work to create and protect public wild lands. I think the native communities are much more familiar with land rights, ANCSA, etc., with a mix of support for development vs. conservation.
- Staffers are young, engaging, and available to talk. I will be less hesitant to call my representatives from now on.
- There are a lot of good people in DC working for Alaska. Alaska Wilderness League and Protect Our Winters ran a very well organized fly-in event.
- It is very likely that the required leases within the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge will be repealed by the House of Representatives (H.R. 1146). It will be more challenging to pass changes through the Senate.
We arrived in DC for a full day of orientation. The group was a mix of Alaska Wilderness League (DC reps and two Alaskans, Andy Moderow and Emily Sullivan), Protect Our Winters (reps and athletes), and Alpacka Packraft (Sarah and Thor Tingey).
AWL presented on the history of the Refuge and the short and long-term lobbying goals. The short-term goal, why we were there, was to garnish support for H.R. 1146, the “Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act,” which would remove the clause in the 2017 Tax Bill that required leasing of the Coastal Plain (Area 1002). H.R. 1146 basically says, “Look, it was sneaky to add the opening of the Arctic Refuge to the tax bill. The Refuge deserves being voted on as its own issue.” There really isn’t much more to it than that. H.R. 1146 doesn’t protect the Refuge from development.
One of the tricky parts with the Tax Bill and H.R. 1146 is that leasing on the Refuge is supposed to bring in 1 billion dollars in federal revenue (and 1 billion to Ak over 10 years). If those leases are removed from the tax bill, the government is supposed to find another source for that money. I don’t understand much of this other than that it is a mess, in part because the billion dollar estimate doesn’t match any of Alaska’s previous lease earnings.
After learning about the history and our ‘Ask’ (‘Please support H.R. 1146!’) we split into groups of 4 or 5 to practice our pitches. This style of pitch is called a Story of Self, which was heavily adopted in the Obama 2008 campaign. Basically, we each worked on a compelling, heartfelt 3-5 minute statement that ended with the Ask.
My pitch was about growing up in a village, taking for granted the stuff that seemed normal there, seeing less and less wilderness as I went from college (MN) to grad school (UCSB, MIT), and having returned to Alaska largely due to its wilderness. I explained that I’d travelled ~10,000 miles of Alaska under my own power, and that the Refuge stands out within Alaska (and the world). I described that during one week in the Refuge we experienced all of: Class III rapids in clean, clear water, crossing the toe of a glacier, soaking in hot springs that required skimming algal scum off the surface, floating past several thousand caribou, and following polar bear tracks to the village of Kaktovik.
Brad, Roman, and I were split into different groups so that we could each contribute something along those lines. Brad mentioned that he has visited the Refuge every year since 1981, Roman talked about the family trips he had done there.
We finished the day with a packraft session on the Potomac River, thanks to the gear wrangling of Emily, Andy, Sarah, and Thor.
The meetings lasted about 30 minutes. We started by asking if the staffer was familiar with the issue, provided background if necessary, and then conversationally brought up our statements. The most significant insight I have from this trip is that the staffers are all young, bright, attentive, and seem genuinely interested in talking about whatever you want to talk about. This realization will make me much more comfortable calling a Representative’s office.
All of the meetings felt worthwhile. The staffers ranged from knowing that their boss already supported H.R. 1146 to very unlikely to support it.
We spent part of the afternoon at a Subcommittee Hearing: Examining the Impacts of Climate Change on Public Lands Recreation. Callan Chythlook-Sifsof (Olympic snowboarder from Aleknagik- Derek Collins and I skied through there on our trip from Aniak to Dillingham) and Hilary Hutcheson spoke on behalf of POW. I met Callan the day before and was impressed with everything she said, about the environment, politics, and being Alaska Native. Hilary is from West Glacier, Montana, and gave a very compelling and factual statement on the new challenges to cold water fishing.
Brad, Roman, Leah Donahey (AWL) and I teamed up for two meetings Thursday morning. It was really fun being back with Brad and Roman, prompting each other in the conversations given our shared experiences and knowing what the others could contribute. After lunch we had enough time for a meeting with a few of Lisa Murkowski’s staff. This was the most disappointing meeting of our visit. The staffers were great, but we knew we couldn’t ask for Lisa’s support on the Refuge, so decided to talk about Pebble. But the staffers were pretty clear that the Federal Government doesn’t have much to do with Pebble. So, mostly they listened politely but weren’t in a position to do anything. We didn’t have an ‘Ask,’ and without it, I felt like we didn’t accomplish anything.
I already wrote my take-home lessons; I put them at the top of the DC section assuming that most folks wouldn’t read this far. 1) Staffers are young and engaged, 2) we have good people fighting for Alaska’s wild lands from Washington DC, and 3) there is still hope that the Arctic Refuge won’t be opened for development.
Thanks for reading, please show your support for conservation work (that’s my Ask!). If you want to support this Arctic Refuge work, specifically, I recommend: