Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

A fool’s errand

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

While preparing to head off alone into the bowels of the Death Star to disable the tractor beam holding the Millenium Falcon captive, Obi Wan Kenobi rhetorically asked of Han Solo, “Who is more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?”  I think of such questions sometimes when my legislators act foolishly.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to be a state legislator.  You also shouldn’t have to know all the relevant facts in relation to a proposed law in order to sponsor it.  But somewhere along the way, someone who knows the law and the facts should step in before a law is proposed.  State Senator Cathy Giessel shows her ignorance of the law and the facts with her sponsorship of SJR11, which calls upon Congress to designate Central Park in Manhattan a wilderness area and thus prohibit any development absent approval from Congress. (This is nothing new – Kyle Johansen, a State Representative, did this with HJR31 in 2012.)

“WTF?” you may rightly ask.  Senator Giessel claims that the goal of the resolution is to bring to light the ridiculousness of Alaskans being prevented from developing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Apparently Sen. Giessel is not afraid of looking like a total and complete idiot, and also disparaging the intelligence of Alaskans on a national stage, by making this proposal.

The resolution is legally and factually flawed in several ways.

First, Central Park is not eligible for designation as wilderness.  The National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) was established by the Wilderness Act of 1964.  Under the Act, only existing Federal lands are eligible for selection as wilderness, and five specific factors must be satisfied: (1) the land is under federal ownership and management, (2) the area consists of at least five thousand acres of land, (3) human influence is “substantially unnoticeable,” (4) there are opportunities for solitude and recreation, and (5) the area possesses “ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” Not surprisingly, Senator Giessel’s proposed resolution does directly not address these requirements.  Central Park would not satisfy at a minimum the first three factors: it’s not Federal land, it consists of only 843 acres, and the influence of humans is substantially noticeable. 

Second, under the Alaska Statehood Act – similar to all states that joined the Union following the original 13 Colonies – the State of Alaska was entitled to select 103,350,000 acres of land not already set aside by the Federal government for other uses.  Alaska has been granted an additional 1.5 million acres of land for university and mental health trust uses.  The lands encompassing what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were never eligible for State selection and have, since the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867, always been Federal lands.  Thus, creating the Arctic Refuge never took away from Alaska any land that was ever granted to Alaska. Sen. Giessel proposes that Central Park should be taken away from New York. Her resolution suggests that the Federal government should “acquire” Central Park, without regard for the fact that such an act would be illegal and violate that state’s sovereignty.

Third, under the Alaska Constitution, the people of Alaska agreed to be bound by the terms of the Alaska Statehood Act that exclude certain lands from use by Alaska.  Specifically, Article 12, Section 12 states: “The State of Alaska and its people forever disclaim all right and title in or to any property belonging to the United States or subject to its disposition, and not granted or confirmed to the State or its political subdivisions, by or under the act admitting Alaska to the Union … The State and its people agree that, unless otherwise provided by Congress, the property, as described in this section, shall remain subject to the absolute disposition of the United States.”  Thus, by insisting that the Federal government allow Alaskans to do what they want with lands retained by the Federal government, Sen. Giessel (and virtually every other elected State official on this issue) has violated her oath of office, which includes a promise to “support and defend … the Constitution of the State of Alaska.”

Finally, as noted above, Central Park is not Federal land – it has always belonged to the people of New York. But, if Sen. Giessel is concerned about protecting it from abuse, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1963.  Plus, simply looking at the park not only in photographs and maps but in person (Sen. Giessel, have you ever been to Central Park? I have …), you can tell it is not under threat of development.  (Sure, it is landscaped and has paved trails, but that is not the type of “development” Sen. Giessel and others desires to pursue in the Arctic Refuge.)  There is only one building in the park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and if the park hasn’t been developed by now, it won’t.  One could also say that it is a model for management, as most of the expenses for maintenance of the park are raised by a private non-profit, the Central Park Conservancy, thus alleviating much of that burden from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

One could say that Central Park is already like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  An oasis of habitat, surrounded by development (the North Slope region to the immediate west of the Refuge is a vast network of oil and gas infrastructure), it should be left alone to continue providing the valuable habitat it does to the many species that thrive within.  Central Park currently provides rich habitat to a variety of avian and mammalian species. In fact, Sen. Giessel’s stunt is a compelling argument in favor of wilderness designation for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 1002 Area on the coastal plain.  The biodiversity and importance of the coastal plain within the ecosystem of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge far outweighs that provided in the mere 843 acres seen in Central Park.

What, Forest Service Gutting the First Amendment? Relax Already.

Thursday, September 25th, 2014
What, Forest Service Gutting the First Amendment? Relax Already.

There’s a lot of outrage on the Internets these days about proposed plans by the U.S. Forest Service to gut the First Amendment by requiring permits for news media or nature photographers in Federally-designated wilderness areas on Forest Service lands. After reading a lot of the outrage, there are two things that come abundantly clear: None of the outraged have actually read the applicable Federal Register notice, and none of them are aware that this has been the status quo on Federal public lands for decades. Nothing on the face of the notice actually applies to the media. So, you have to look at the applicable proposed regulation in order to see how “unfairly” the media is “targeted.”

What the Federal Register Notice Actually Says

It’s always important when analyzing a law to go back to the original language, not how it has been interpreted. So, in this case, let’s go to the actual notice as printed in the Federal Register. The notice published by the U.S. Forest Service proposes changes to 36 C.F.R. 251, which currently requires a special use permit for any activity on Forest Service lands other than noncommercial uses and other exempted activities.  The proposal at issue is to take interim guidance that has been in effect for four years and develop “permanent guidance for the evaluation of proposals for still photography and commercial filming on National Forest System Lands.” Noting the need for consistent, national criteria for evaluating applications for special use permits for such activities, the ultimate goal to develop “the criteria used to evaluate request for special use permits related to still photography and commercial filming in congressionally designated wilderness areas.” Most importantly, the Federal Register notice does not even propose new restrictions on activities at all – it merely proposes creating more evaluation criteria so that the Forest Service can consistently evaluate applications for special use permits.  Let me make this clear – it does not propose any changes to what activities already require a special use permit under existing U.S. Forest Service regulations.  The proposed evaluation criteria would allow the U.S. Forest Service to issue a special use permit for “commercial filming” and “still photography” if the application

[m]eets the screening criteria in 36 CFR 251.54(e); [w]ould not cause unacceptable resource damage; [w]ould not unreasonably disrupt the public’s use and enjoyment of the site where the activity would occur; [w]ould not pose a public health and safety risk; and [m]eets the following additional criteria, if the proposed activity, other than noncommercial still photography (36 CFR 251.51), would be in a congressionally designated wilderness area: a. Has a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value (16 U.S.C. 1131(a) and (b)); b. Would preserve the wilderness character of the area proposed for use, for example, would leave it untrammeled, natural, and undeveloped and would preserve opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation (16 U.S.C. 1131(a)); c. Is wilderness-dependent, for example, a location within a wilderness area is identified for the proposed activity and there are no suitablelocations outside of a wilderness area (16 U.S.C. 1133(d)(6)); d. Would not involve use of a motor vehicle, motorboat, or motorized equipment, including landing of aircraft, unless authorized by the enabling legislation for the wilderness area (36 CFR 261.18(a) and (c)); e. Would not involve the use of mechanical transport, such as a hang glider or bicycle, unless authorized by the enabling legislation for the wilderness area (36 CFR 261.18(b)); f. Would not violate any applicable order (36 CFR 261.57); and g. Would not advertise any product or service.

In short, the permit application may be granted if the activity will not disrupt others’ enjoyment of the forest or cause any safety risks, and, for permits in wilderness areas, does not violate the Congressional mandates of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That is it – there are no new restrictions being considered, merely clarified guidelines as to how the agency will evaluate your permit application. Quite frankly, as a member of the public, I’d rather there be clear, specific guidelines rather than allowing the agency to exercise its own unfettered discretion.

Permitting for “Commercial Filming” and “Still Photography” on Federal Public Lands

The key terms in the Federal Register notice are “still photography” and “commercial filming, ” so, the smart place to go next is how those terms are defined in existing regulations. Currently, any use of Forest Service lands is considered a special use except “noncommercial recreational activities, such as camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, boating, hunting, and horseback riding, or for noncommercial activities involving the expression of views, such as assemblies, meetings, demonstrations, and parades, unless … the proposed use is still photography as defined in [this regulation].” Additionally, the regulations note that travel on the Forest Service road system shall not require a special use permit unless the activity is “commercial filming, or still photography, as defined in [this regulation].”

So, how do the Forest Service regulations currently define “commercial filming” and “still photography”? That is the question that no one is asking. “Commercial filming” is defined as “use of motion picture, videotaping, sound recording, or any other moving image or audio recording equipment on National Forest System lands that involves the advertisement of a product or service, the creation of a product for sale, or the use of models, actors, sets, or props, but not including activities associated with broadcasting breaking news, as defined in FSH 2709.11, chapter 40.” The other key term, “still photography,” is defined as “use of still photographic equipment on National Forest System lands that takes place at a location where members of the public generally are not allowed or where additional administrative costs are likely, or uses models, sets, or props that are not a part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities.”

By their plain language, neither definition would apply to someone who was going in with a regular DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera or iPhone to take wildlife, nature or landscape photos, unless models or props were needed. It also would not apply to any media reporter using still photography – DSLR or iPhone – to simply capture images for editorial purposes. It would require, however, a special use permit if a media organization wanted to bring in a film crew to work on a documentary or series. But in this case, what is being regulated is conduct – the type of activity and the number of people involved – not the speech of the press. And courts have routinely held that the government can regulate conduct without violating the First Amendment. Public land managers have an obligation to ensure that the organic acts governing those agencies, and where applicable, the Wilderness Act, are being followed. A large film crew – regardless of the intent of that crew (feature film or news organization) – can have an impact on public resources. 

This approach is not unique, and is reflected in existing regulations on all other Federal public lands. The Department of the Interior also requires a permit for “commercial filming” and “still photography” for National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lands. Under 36 C.F.R. §5.5, “commercial filming” and “still photography” activities require a permit, as stated in 43 C.F.R. Part 5. Under those regulations, all “commercial filming” requires a permit, and “still photography” requires a permit when “[i]t uses a model, set, or prop as defined in §5.12; or … [t]he agency determines a permit is necessary because … [i]t takes place at a location where or when members of the public are not allowed; or .. [t]he agency would incur costs for providing on-site management and oversight to protect agency resources or minimize visitor use conflicts.”  “Commercial filming is defined as “the film, electronic, magnetic, digital, or other recording of a moving image by a person, business, or other entity for a market audience with the intent of generating income. Examples include, but are not limited to, feature film, videography, television broadcast, or documentary, or other similar projects. Commercial filming activities may include the advertisement of a product or service, or the use of actors, models, sets, or props.” Under these regulations, “still photography” is defined as “the capturing of a still image on film or in a digital format.”

Thus, existing regulations for NPS, BLM and USFWS lands incorporate pretty much the same elements as those under current Forest Service regulations.  In both instances, the regulations recognize the special role of the media. The Interior regulations do not require a permit for any news-gathering activities – filming or still photography – unless it is determined that a “permit is necessary to protect natural and cultural resources, to avoid visitor use conflicts, to ensure public safety or authorize entrance into a closed area; and [o]btaining a permit will not interfere with the ability to gather the news.” The Interior regulation also exempts the news media from any applicable fees. The definition of “commercial filming” under the Forest Service regulations excludes “activities associated with broadcasting breaking news.” However, the Forest Service does not appear to exempt news-gathering from a special use fee. 

Neither the Interior nor the Forest Service regulations set a specific fee for a special use permit application. In the Forest Service regulations, it notes a possible “rental fee” of $100 annually, plus “cost recovery” fees of an unspecified amount to “recover the agency’s processing costs for special use applications and monitoring costs for special use authorizations” and an unspecified “processing fee,” which varies based on numerous factors. Nowhere do the regulations provide for a $1,500 application fee as the various media accounts claim.  Similarly vague, the Interior regulations require a “reasonable location fee that provides a fair return to the United States” and a “cost recovery fee”  that covers “direct and indirect expenses including, but not limited to, administrative costs for application processing, preproduction meetings and other activities, on-site monitoring of permitted activities, and any site restoration.” In all cases, such fees are not set nationally, but by the regional land manager. For example, the Denali National Park Professional Photographer Special Road Travel permit requires an application fee of $100, plus $150 for the actual permit if awarded. The park’s commercial filming permit application fee is $200, with the permit fee itself varying from $150 to $750 per day, depending on how many people are involved in the shoot.

In short, the Forest Service is not proposing any new regulations that would require any additional types of activities to get a special use permit, and its regulations are consistent with the regulations that govern National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands. You will not have to pay a special use permit fee to take nature or wildlife photos using a DSLR in Forest Service lands, wilderness or otherwise, unless you are using props and models like a commercial stock photographer would use. If you are a reporter, the same applies.

Getting to the Real Problem

Now, this discussion does highlight two problems, neither of which are related to the proposed Forest Service regulation. First, the existing regulations that define “commercial filming” are woefully out-of-touch with modern technology. You don’t need a massive film crew with lots of equipment and motorized transportation to do filming these days, whether with a HD digital video camera or a DSLR. It can be done with one person traveling on foot or non-motorized power. Anyone who has ever seen Survivorman knows this. Second, while the national regulations themselves are not terribly confusing, how they are often enforced or interpreted by local land managers has led to actions that are inconsistent with and contradictory to the plain language of the regulations. When local land managers stretch and abuse the regulations to enforce their own vision of how lands should be used, they violate public trust and create a serious Constitutional problem; that is, that we are supposed to be on notice of what the government expects of us. When their actions violate the plain language of that notice, then we have a real problem.

Provide Meaningful Comments to EPA

Thursday, June 27th, 2013
Provide Meaningful Comments to EPA

In the upcoming days, you will see a frantic flurry of e-blasts, Tweets and Facebook posts urging you to tell the EPA to stop the Pebble Mine, to “help save jobs” in the commercial fishing industry.  But these calls for action are not what the EPA is looking for right now.  Unfortunately, it has been a common problem during this process.

Last summer, the EPA conducted its first round of public hearings on the initial draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment, from Anchorage to villages along the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. At each hearing, the EPA started with a presentation. First, the EPA explained why it was even involved in the issue. It was petitioned by a  group of Alaska Tribes to consider using its authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), to stop the development of the Pebble Mine.  Given the EPA’s ultimate permitting authority over all “waters of the United States,” this law would empower the EPA to make decisions over lands that were otherwise under State control. That section of the CWA gets at the heart of a crucial element of design of any sulphuric, hard rock mine that employs open pits – a “disposal site” commonly referred to as a talings pond or talings impoundment (Pebble’s would be massive).  It provides:

The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas. Before making such determination, the Administrator shall consult with the Secretary. The Administrator shall set forth in writing and make public his findings and his reasons for making any determination under this subsection.

Thus, under this authority, the EPA could decree that a fish spawning and breeding area could not be used as a disposal site for any waste rock from a mining operation if it would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on that habitat.  But the EPA could only do so after a notice and opportunity for hearing, and after consultation with the Secretary of the Army (yes, the Army, because of the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in wetlands management.)

Second, the EPA identified at these hearings the data it had relied upon in producing the draft watershed assessment.  It stated that it had relied on the environmental baseline information produced by the Pebble Partnership, and its predecessors, which had been conducting baseline environmental studies since at least 2006 (some 18 years after initial exploration began – hardly “baseline”). Similarly, the EPA relied on mine plans filed by Northern Dynasty with the Canadian government, giving a rough outline as to the type, nature and size of mine Pebble would be. It also included scientific data gathered by the State of Alaska, peer-reviewed research, and numerous interviews with Tribal elders.

Finally, it asked the public to provide input on anything that it may have missed.  Are there any studies or data out there that the agency missed? Are there any scenarios that were not considered? What sort of flaws were there with the agency’s methodology?

In response, the EPA mostly received comments at these hearings that were outside of the scope of what it was looking for.  “Why are you here? This is State land!” came one comment.  “Pebble has been out there studying the area for six years, you’ve only been here for one year, what do you know?” was another.  Clearly, these people had not listened to the presentation.  Many other comments centered around how the Pebble Mine would be good for jobs or would harm the fishery or subsistence.  Clearly, these people had not listened to the sort of feedback the EPA was soliciting.  This problem seems to be persisting today.

With post after post, and email after Tweet, I am seeing this pattern repeat itself.  A cadre of chefs have sent a letter to the EPA urging the Acting Administrator to stop the Pebble Mine. Trout Unlimited’s “Save Bristol Bay” Facebook page has been urging people to “Tell EPA to Protect Bristol Bay!” Earthworks, one of the more vocal nationwide organizations on mining issues, has been urging its members and newsletter subscribers to “Tell the EPA to use its Clean Water Act power and prohibit mining in the Bristol Bay watershed!” But these calls, while well-intentioned, are premature and simply not what the EPA is looking for at this time.

The EPA’s own page established for this watershed assessment clearly states the limited purpose of the assessment, noting, “The assessment will provide a better understanding of the Bristol Bay Watershed and will inform consideration of development in the area.” The revised draft assessment itself clearly states what it is NOT intended to do:  “As a scientific assessment, it does not discuss or recommend policy, legal, or regulatory decisions, nor does it outline or analyze options for future decisions.” So the purpose of the assessment is to outline the science that may guide a future decision; it is not designed to be a mechanism for making a decision in and of itself.

As to what the EPA is looking for, it clearly sets that out as well: “We’re accepting comments on the revised draft assessment until June 30, 2013.  We want to ensure that we’re using the best available science and that we’ve heard and considered all comments received in response to the May 2012 draft assessment.” So, to reiterate, has the EPA considered all the relevant science and has it considered the comments received during last summer’s public process. That’s it.  The EPA is not looking for your opinion as to whether the Pebble Mine should be allowed to proceed.  If you recall the language of Section 404(c), it can only refuse to authorize a discharge into important fish habitat after notice and opportunity for a hearing – such notice will not come until after it has completed its final assessment.  (There would be no public process if the EPA chooses not to assert its Section 404(c) authority.) And when the EPA engages in that public process, THAT would be a good time to opine about whether Pebble is a good idea. But that would not come until after the EPA has issued a final watershed assessment, and after it has announced a decision and scheduled a process for public input.

So, if you want to provide meaningful input to the EPA, not the kind of input that would go into the “Not Applicable” file, then go back to what the EPA is asking for.  First, the science.  Are there data, studies, research (preferably peer-reviewed) related to the fish spawning and rearing habitats of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers that the EPA has not considered?  For example, has Dr. Carol Ann Woody been out in the field lately and is her data included? Then, are there any potential impacts to that habitat the EPA has not considered?  For example, is the assessment’s focus on a catastrophic event – rather than the surface water and ground water pollution likely to result from normal, permitted operations – adequate? Or, has the EPA considered the impact of the use of mixing zones on salmon habitat? Second, go back and review the comments you submitted or that your organization submitted, and then review whether the EPA has addressed those concerns.  If it has not, then reiterate those comments and state how or why the EPA has not responded to them.

These public processes are important, and the unusual nature of this process has understandably left people confused as to what they should say, or where we are in the process.  It is a power that has been rarely used and lacks the predictability and certainly of any process conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Thus, the best way to take advantage of this unusual public process involving the Pebble Prospect (it has undergone virtually no public process in 25 years of exploration) is to give the agency what it is looking for.  Any comments outside of that scope will simply be ignored.

Go here to read instructions on how to comment on the EPA’s revised draft watershed assessment for Bristol Bay.

We take wildlife records seriously

Sunday, December 16th, 2012
We take wildlife records seriously

In December of 2010, I was one of the attorneys sitting at the table on the Plaintiffs’ side of the courtroom in Nunamta Aulukestai v. State of Alaska, a lawsuit filed in 2009 challenging the constitutionality of the State of Alaska’s exploratory permitting scheme for upland hardrock mineral exploration.  Namely, the State of Alaska had (and still has) a practice of not conducting what is called a “best interests” determination before allowing hardrock mining exploration, while requiring a best interest finding for similar activity for oil and gas exploration.  The lawsuit focused on the 20+ years of exploration conducted at the Pebble Prospect – it was a perfect illustration of why such findings should be conducted: the State would have to take a hard look at the long term benefits and impacts of such activity and allow the public the opportunity to comment on the project.  In its 20+ years, the Pebble exploration effort itself had not been subject to public comment to any State agency – and it still hasn’t.

During the trial, one of the Plaintiffs’ experts was Lance Trasky, a fisheries biologist with extensive fisheries and wildlife management experience after a career in the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.  His opinion focused on the impacts of Pebble exploration to wildlife and the adequacy of Pebble’s mitigation measures involved in water use to protect fish.  On cross-examination, the Pebble attorney, Matt Singer with Jermain, Dunnagan & Owens, sought to discredit Mr. Trasky’s opinion by pointing out that Trasky had not relied on all available information to form his opinion.  Namely, Mr. Singer sought to point out that Mr. Trasky had not considered data reported in wildlife sighting logs maintained by exploration drill rig crews.  All crews on site were required to write down in this log the wildlife sighted while out at the work site.

After establishing that Trasky had not relied on the logs, Singer then went on to question Trasky about why he hadn’t relied on them.  Wouldn’t other wildlife experts preparing an opinion rely on such a document?, Singer asked.  No, Trasky replied.  He didn’t rely on them because they were unreliable, Trasky said.  And why were they unreliable?, Singer queried.  Because one of the reports noted that the crew observed mountain goat in the region, a species not present in that part of the state.  But that wasn’t the real problem.  The same crew had also reported sighting a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Outburst of laughter in the courtroom, with Mr. Singer looking like he wished he would have personally examined that exhibit before presenting it to the expert witness.

I was reminded of this the other day with a report from the Alaska Dispatch about Matthew Terry, a young fishing guide from Alabama who spends his summers helping to catch fish on the Kasilof River on the Kenai Peninsula.  It turns out that Mr. Terry has caught the unfavorable attention of Alaska State Troopers with his logbooks from his summer 2012 catch.  Among the species that Mr. Terry reported harvesting with his clients were tuna, blue whale, “jack” beluga (adopting the term from “jack” king, which is a juvenile king salmon that has returned too early), and Chupacabra.  Yes, Chupacabra, the mythical monster from Mexico that is famous for its fondness for goat bloodletting, and featured in the “X-Files” episode, “El Mundo Gira.”  Unfortunately for Mr. Terry, Alaska’s fish and game enforcement officers expect guides to take seriously their responsibility to accurately report their catch, leading to their issuing a summons for his appearance in court.

Alaskans take their fish and wildlife and laws related to them rather seriously.  You can earn stiffer penalties for poaching than for your first (or even probably second or third) DUI.  (Not that I agree with such results – DUI penalties should be much stiffer than they are.)  The abundance of fish and wildlife resources are among the things that make Alaska truly special.  One of the important tools for fisheries or wildlife managers is knowledge of the population.  The State lacks the initiative (certainly not lacking the money with a $15 billion budget reserve) to actually go out there and conduct population counts on major fish and wildlife populations at all locations in the state, so one of the things that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game relies on is self-reporting.  Individuals who are out there in the country (for example, drilling crews) or harvesting fish or wildlife (users and guides) will have much more opportunity to report on population status than state biologists.  Part of keeping track of that population is the consumption of it.   Knowing the harvest levels of certain species aid fisheries and wildlife managers in determining harvest levels in the future.

And while the Pebble drilling crews or the young man from Alabama provide us some much-appreciated entertainment value, their creativity in reporting on official documents – and the reaction to those reports – highlights that in Alaska, you don’t mess with fish and wildlife management.

It’s “Denali” – just let it go

Friday, November 30th, 2012

At 20,320 feet, the highest peak in North America is located in the Alaska Range, bearing the official name of Mt. McKinley.  It is also has the highest rise above its base of any land-based mountain in the world, even higher than Everest.  Throughout time, it has bore many names, from большая гора (“big mountain”) by the Russians to various names by Alaska Native groups: Dghelay Ka’a (Dena’ina Athabascan), Traleika (Aleut), or Denali (Koyukon Athabascan).  But it is the name of “Denali” that has endured, earning common recognition as the name for the mountain by modern Alaska Natives, mountaineers, and most residents of Alaska.  Even Congress recognized this when it changed the name of the park that houses the mountain from “Mt. McKinley National Park” to “Denali National Park & Preserve” with passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980.

It is also members of the Ohio Congressional delegation who have been primarily responsible for keeping the name of the mountain itself from officially changing to match that of the park and the name used by thousands of Alaskans.

Back in 1896, a man named William McKinely from the state of Ohio was running for President of the United States and had just received the Republican nomination.  Completely unknown to Mr. McKinley, a Seattleite prospector named William A. Dickey was looking for gold in the Susitna River valley of Alaska, and was irritated with local silver miners who promoted the Democratic candidate (who happened to be pushing for a silver standard in U.S. currency).  To retaliate, he threw his support behind McKinley by giving the name “Mt. McKinley” to the mountain known to the Koyukon Athabascans as Denali.  And unlike the prior English name of Densmore’s Peak, so named after a gold prospector, this one stuck.

But in 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of mountain to Denali. Then, at the request of Governor Jay Hammond, the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the federal governmental body responsible for naming geographic features in the United States, change the name of the mountain from Mount McKinley to “Mount Denali.”

Unfortunately for Alaskans, there was a Congressman in Ohio, Ralph Regula, who took umbrage to this attempt by Alaskans to name their own geographic features.  Congressman Regula’s district encompassed Canton, where McKinley spent a great deal of his life.  Regula gathered signatures from other Ohio congressional delegates to put pressure on preventing the name change.  The passage of ANILCA seemed by some to be a compromise – by changing the name of the park to Denali while retaining the name of McKinley for the mountain – but Don Young, in perhaps the only good thing he has ever done for Alaskans in his 40 years of service in Congress, pressed again for the formal renaming of the mountain.  Congressman Regula would not stand for it, taking advantage of a Board of Geographic Names policy that prohibits changing names of geographic features while any bill about the feature is pending in Congress.  Congressman Regula started a biennial tradition of introducting a bill that prohibted the name change.

Even though Regula retired in 2009, two of his Ohio colleagues, Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan, continue to press bills preventing the name change.  Their latest effort is H.R. 229, “To provide for the retention of the name of Mount McKinley.”  In an astonishingly rare bout of simplicity in congressional decrees, it states, “Notwithstanding any other authority of law, the mountain located 63 degrees 04 minutes 12 seconds north, by 151 degrees 00 minutes 18 seconds west shall continue to be named and referred to for all purposes as Mount McKinley.”  The resolution was re-introduced in January 2011 as H.R. 247.  At this point, it has only been referred to committee; it has not yet been reported out of that committee.  In June 2012, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a bill to change the name from McKinley to Denali.

Long story short, some prospector who has no authority to name geographic locations wanted to make a political statement in opposition to his mining rivals – even naming it “McKinley” as little more than a joke – and a century later, Alaskans are stuck with the name because of a couple of Ohioans.

William McKinley has absolutely no personal connection to Alaska, but plenty to Ohio.  He was born there, served in the House of Representatives for 14 years (first being elected at 34), and served two terms as Governor of Ohio before being elected as President of the United States.  And yet, he never visited Alaska prior to his assassination in 1901.  Perhaps he has visited it since in his spare time in the afterlife, but there is no way to confirm that.

Representatives Sutton and Ryan claim that they fight to keep “The Mountain” (as Alaskans often refer to it) named McKinley as a matter of pride in William McKinley and his legacy.  If he is really that important to Ohioans, then they should rename a prominent geographic feature in Ohio after McKinley.  I understand that the geographic features in Ohio lack the grandeur of a 20,000+ tall mountain, but at least it would be within a state that McKinley ever visited.  Or perhaps, why not put a huge statue dedicated to him somewhere.  There is another “Hero of Canton” who got a larger-than-life statue dedicated to him (although it was only made of fired mud) for doing something much less than being President of the United States – all he did was screw up and drop a bunch of cash out of his spaceship when escaping the authorities after committing a robbery.  I know, different Canton, but it makes the point.

Thousands of Koyukon Athabascan people over thousands of years knew it by another name, Denali, “the high one” (or “the great one”).  Geographic features across the United States are being renamed from the colonialist name given to them by European conquerers back to their original Native names.  Respecting the cultures of America’s indigenous peoples is something that we as a country have been slow to do, but we have hopefully gotten better at it.  At the very least it is considered progressive to be sensitive to such things, and yet, both Ryan and Sutton are Democrats, apparently incapable of seeing the irony of how their recalcitrant position on renaming The Mountain to reflect its thousands-year Alaska Native heritage is so disrespectful of those Native peoples.

It’s also, quite frankly, extraordinarily disrespectful to 650,000+ Americans who have a lot more vested interest in the name of their tallest mountain than folks do in the Buckeye State.  I wonder how many homes and businesses in Ohio bear the visual represntation of The Mountain compared to Alaska.  I would bet that more actual numbers of people and businesses in Alaska have a picture or graphic rerpesentation of The Mountain than they do in Ohio.  Certainly more businesses in Alaska are named after it – and they use the name Denali!

Not that anyone from Alaska has ever served as President of the United States, but if they had, would Ohio appreciate Alaskans forcing them to name the most dominant geographic feature in the state after that person?  What if Sarah Palin had become Vice President, and in the future some businessman from Alaska was visiting Ohio and decided that Lake Erie should be renamed Lake Palin?  Granted, William McKinley by recent historians was a much better president than we could have expected from Sarah Palin as VP, but the point is the same.

Representatives Sutton and Ryan, it is time you got in line with history and help to put an end to the subjugation of America’s indigenous peoples through usurpation of tradtional names for important geographic locations.  It’s time you allowed Alaskans the opportunity to name their highest mountain.  Aside from the issue of respecting the Alaska Natives and the residents of Alaska, it certainly would make life easier for all of us.  I am tired of having to use both names when talking about The Mountain.  We Alaskans call it Denali and everyone else wrongfully thinks – thanks to your perpetration of William Dickey’s joke – that the mountain is called McKinley.  So I always have to use both names when talking about outsiders or else they have no idea what I am talking about.  But everyone knows the park as Denali National Park (& Preserve).  It is time you just let go and find something better to do with your time that will actually help your constituents.

NOTE: A principal source for this post is the USGS Geographic Name Information System.  However, that system is designed to prevent links to individual page results from outside sources.  Another principal source is an online excerpt from Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W.  Loewen.

And the universe goes on …

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012
And the universe goes on ...

I sat home on the evening of November 6, enjoying dinner with my wonderful wife, Michelle, watching the returns come back about the results in our 2012 national election.  I would take a few bites, then pick up the iPad and skim and for the latest results, while also flipping over to the tab open to  I was watching another set of numbers – the solar wind and the direction of the Bz in the magnetic field.  The winds weren’t as high as I would like – only 365 km/sec – but the Bz was 7.7 south; a good number.  I stayed long enough to see that President Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term – an announcement that came surprisingly early – then gathered my gear and headed out.

On my way down the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, along the fjord-like Turnagain Arm, I listened to the National Public Radio coverage of the election returns, which included some content from our local NPR affiliate, KSKA, on local election returns.  Our polls had only just closed recently, so it was too early to tell for most races.  Representative Don Young, the “congressman for only the Alaskans who voted for him,” was celebrating yet another easy victory that will take him into his 21st (no, that’s not a typo) term in Congress.

I did not hear any reports on how the conservatives were reacting, but I suspected that every gun shop in the United States that was still open for business in the day got yet another rush on its doors from the perpetually paranoid and afraid.  I am sure that some people – in combination with the gay rights victories in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota – were ranting about the signs of the end times.  And I am confident that thousands of Americans were grumbling about how now this was really going to be a “socialist” country and the end of our society as we know it was near.

As I continued down, I did the best I could (while driving at 55 mph) to check the skies for cloud cover and any hints of the aurora borealis.  With the exception of what appeared to be a fog hanging over Girdwood and the Alyeska Ski Resort, the skies were clear.  When I turned from the Seward Highway onto the Portage Valley road in the Chugach National Forest, I pulled over to check the latest spaceweather updates on my smart phone.  The Bz had flipped to north (not good), but the “donut” was still looking like it had promise.

I checked three locations I had scouted a week before, visualizing what I would want to do if the aurora showed up.  I waited for a little while at each one, then had to drive almost out of the valley before I could get a strong enough signal to check the usual websites for updates.  The conditions were not promising, and getting worse.  So, I picked my favorite location, set up the camera and took a couple of test shots to make sure the stars were in focus.  I set my camera to ISO 100, f/2.8, manual exposure to “bulb” setting, and locked the shutter open.  Then, I took a nap for about two hours.  The end result was this image, with the starry sky swirling around the North Star.

When I posted the image on my Facebook page, a fan made a comment noting that while there was division in our land, I brought joy to her morning by sharing something beautiful.  Her point is one that should not be lost.  As a country, we just spent billions of dollars to keep our political landscape the same as it was prior to the election cycle (same President, Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans in control of the House).  There was a lot of acrimony generated with little or no mention of whether anyone would do anything to benefit the beautiful world we as a species call our home.  (Well, one of the candidates openly joked and mocked about the notion of the oceans rising, a few weeks before they rose in response to a super storm and swallowed New York and New Jersey.)

But fortunately, the Earth wasn’t paying attention to our elections.  It continued on as it has for billions of years.  It remained a place where beauty, life, solace and energy can be found for those who seek it.  The streams ran, the lakes and ponds continued to freeze up as winter continues to take hold of the land, the ptarmigan kept to the willows to protect themselves from predators, the wolves kept patrolling their territory for the next meal that would feed the pack, and all other sorts of natural events continued on while the humans of this continent went collectively crazy.  We are lucky to have such a place that can always be there for us, always provide the spiritual renewal we need to recover from the last crisis or cope with the next …or, perhaps, allow us to just remember what gives us life and how we can feel when we are in its presence.

Someday, though, this Earth will no longer be here.  We will likely forever change its surface because of our various manipulations of it, and then one day the Earth itself will be pulverized when our sun enters a Red Giant phase and expands its diameter out to the orbit of Jupiter.

But the same stars that gave me wonder this night will always be there, shining down on this space we currently call home, regardless of what happens on or to this world.

Iran and the Strait of Hormuz – How easily we forget after 20 years

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012
Iran and the Strait of Hormuz - How easily we forget after 20 years

I grew up in climates that could get hot and muggy in the summer, suffering sweltering, messy Julys and oppressive Augusts.  I was all-too familiar with that sense of staying wet all day after your shower, the towel simply incapable of keeping up with the sweat beading down along your skin as you attempt to dry from a morning wash.

That was nothing.

Looking outside, it was almost difficult to see the horizon.  The water was so smooth and silky, it blended almost seamlessly with the diffuse, heavily moistened air.  The numbers were staggering.  Water temperature – 94 degrees, air temperature – 105 degrees, radiant heat coming off the dark grey deck of the ship – 130 degrees, and the humidity … 97 percent.  At what point do you just relent and call it 100%, especially when you can just watch it gather and form colonies of water on your skin?  On my way around the weather decks I passed by a .50 caliber mount and crew on the port fantail.  They were standing guard for what we had trained for off and on since leaving our home port in Long Beach, California.  They were waiting for Iranian small boat attacks. (Our first challenge by small boats would actually come from a “friendly” nation, Oman.)

Shortly after finishing dinner, I retired down below to my bunk in the Operations Department berthing space down below in the bow of the U.S.S. David R. Ray (DD-971).  As I lay in my bunk reading Cyber Way by Alan Dean Foster, I hear the announcement over the 1MC, “Set Modified Condition 1A throughout the ship.”  We are facing one of the other threats we trained for enroute to the Persian Gulf – the Iranian Silkworm threat.  The Silkworm is a surface-to-surface missile capable of striking from moderate distances.  In this case, Iran had a missile base featuring the Silkworms that placed a good portion of the Strait of Hormuz, our passage into the Persian Gulf, within reach.

We had been under the watchful eye of Iran long before entering the Strait.  While still off the coast of Oman, an Iranian P-3 did a fly-by while out on maritime patrol.  It made me think of the many passes I received by a Soviet Bear D reconnaissance aircraft in the Sea of Japan.

It was a good thing that no one on the NTDS console or air radar consoles ever called out an incoming vampire (anti-ship cruise missile).  We were busy enough just keeping track of the regular and heavy shipping and air traffic, maintaining close watch to make sure that no one was CBDR (constant bearing, decreasing range) – on an intercept course.  Shortly after exiting the Strait and entering the Gulf, we passed by some of the “eternal flames,” Iranian oil fields still on fire some two years after they were attacked in “Operation Praying Mantis.”  I went out to the starboard forward lookout station just so I can see them for myself.  In the dark, humid night, the constant flames presented dots of eerie orange glows in the night, accented by the recognizable scent of burning oil, even miles away.  The attacks were in retaliation to damage to a U.S. Naval warship from an Iranian mine.  The unfortunate ship was the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, a guided-missile frigate.  Mines, yet another threat we had to be ready for.  We would be the eighth warship joining Joint Task Force Middle East on station in the Persian Gulf, with only one mine sweeper tasked to make sure our waters were clear.  Our training on board the ship on dealing with mines dealt with the business end; what to do for damage control after striking one.

We would routinely place ourselves in harm’s way of the Silkworm envelope in the Strait of Hormuz conducting “Earnest Will” operations.  Due to the Iranian habit of attacking Bahraini tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the Bahrain government asked President Reagan to provide Navy escorts.  Since it was illegal for U.S. Navy vessels to escort foreign-flagged civilian vessels, these tankers were re-registered under the U.S. flag and provided protection.  Even before Earnest Will began, the threat to shipping traffic was brought into sharp reality with the attack on the U.S.S. Stark by two Iraqi Exocet missiles. The tension caused by that incident would later produce another casualty, this time at the hands of a U.S. Naval warship when the U.S.S. Vincennes, a Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruiser, shot down an Iranian commercial airliner, Iran Air Flight 655.  While the Commanding Officer of the Vincennes lost his command over the incident, it is difficult to think that any other commander would have acted differently.  While transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the Vincennes faced an air target that was not squawking its IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) as required, was not responding to radio communications, and was flying a classic attack profile.

Fortunately for me, such tensions had subsided by the time I entered the Gulf and became involved in Operation Earnest Will in the summer of 1990.  Each escort we conducted lasted about four hours; just the right amount of time to transit safely through the danger zone.  And each one passed without incident.

And all through our various missions and operations, we were just one ship for most of the time, with the rest of the Task Force spread out throughout the Gulf.  Not that we were defenseless.  We had tomahawk missiles, fired through our new Vertical Launch Array (VLA), Harpoon missiles, the new Rolling Aeroframe Missile (RAM) for surface-to-air defense, the Sea Sparrow missile (another air defense platform), two 5-inch guns, two 20mm Vulcan Phalanx guns, and our assorted .50 caliber mounts.  And, to add an extra measure of surveillance and protection, we had an SH60B Seahawk helicopter on board, capable of providing forward intelligence and a fast response to small threats.

Naval technology has come along way since the David R. Ray, who met her demise off the coast of Hawaii in 2008, sunk as part of a joint Japan-U.S. training exercise.  Given the amount of money we have been pouring into defense since my visit to the Persian Gulf in 1990, and based on my own recent trips aboard Naval warships, I know we are capable of so much more than we were twenty years ago.

I also suspect, and am rather confident, that Iran has not progressed so much.  Its economy, such as it is, cannot support much of an investment in defense.  (Well, not that ours can support it either, but that is another story.)  Nothing that I have seen suggests that Iran poses any different threat in tactics or capabilities than it did twenty years ago.  When we talk about Iran’s capabilities now, we talk about small boats, mines, and surface-to-surface missiles.  These were all things that we trained for over twenty years ago.  And all through our intensive operations in the Persian Gulf in the 1908s through the Iran-Iraq war and the 1990s during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, and even the eventual enforcement of a no-fly zone, only two U.S. Navy vessels actually received any damage – the Roberts and the Stark.  And while the U.S.S. Cole suffered damage from a small boat bomb attack in late 2000, that was instigated by Al-Qaeda, not Iran.

And through all that U.S. Naval presence in the Gulf, countless civilian vessels, including oil tankers, passed through the Strait of Hormuz safely.

Yet the media and leadership in our country seems ignorant of that history.  In all fairness, I do not have any knowledge how well the U.S. media reported on these things back in the 80s and 90s.  I was, after all, in the Navy during Operation Earnest Will and the beginnings of Operation Desert Shield.  My only media source was the Stars and Stripes, and I, with my job and security clearance, always knew more about what was going on in my theater of operations than what they could print in that wonderful paper.

Back in December, Iran started to make noise about closing the Strait of Hormuz in response to increased threats from the West to impose sanctions in response to Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons program.  Responses to that threat were slow to come in the United States, with most emphasis being on responding to the Iranian nuclear program, containing the Israeli’s assassination campaign of Iranian scientists, and responding to Iran’s responses to our threats over their imagined threat of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, oil speculators have caught on, taking advantage of the disarray and scattered approach to dealing with Iran.  From threats over the Strait of Hormuz to Israel’s provocations to our own saber rattling about imaginary weapons programs (no evidence has surfaced regarding an Iranian nuclear weapons program), there is more than enough fuel to fire the rise in oil prices at the hands of unregulated speculators.

And yet, through it all, a simple truth is lost.  Iran couldn’t close the Strait of Hormuz twenty or thirty years ago, and still could not today.  One can only hope that people with influence start to recognize that.


Live from Anchorage, it’s the Rachel Maddow Show

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010
Live from Anchorage, it's the Rachel Maddow Show

So, I was doing like I do every weekday, sitting at my desk on the computer, working while I listen to the Shannyn Moore Show on KUDO 1080, when Shannyn announced that the Rachel Maddow Show was going to be broadcasting live from Anchorage.  The show would be broadcast live from the Tap Root Cafe, a restaurant and bar with live music and the home of Shannyn’s television show on local politics, Moore Up North.  Shannyn announced on her show that there would be a limited number of tickets, on a first-come, first-serve basis, and that interested parties had to send in an email to a particular address.  I immediately emailed the given address, and found out later that night that I was successful.  I would be joining two hundred or so other eager progressives in perhaps the progressive media event of my life thus far in Anchorage.

It turned out that there were far more than two hundred people in the audience that night, most of whom were standing room only.  Estimates put the crowd at around 300-400.  Of course, there was no mention of the event later in the local media, even though similar-sized crowds involving conservative national television personalities would receive extensive coverage from the paper and television stations.  That is just one of the hazards of living in a conservative town in a conservative state.  But it equally adds to the power of being in a room, concentrated with very dedicated progressives; perhaps everyone who is anyone in the progressive leadership and advocacy circles was there to see one of their heroes, the hard-hitting, smart and research-intensive Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.

It was an absolute treat to observe the production involved in broadcasting such a show, and rather impressive to watch how they could make it happen in such a confined space.  Prior to the show, Rachel engaged the audience for approximately twenty minutes, talking about her experiences in Alaska and answering questions.  It was revealing that Rachel Maddow was exactly the same person she was in person as she is behind the camera.  Smart, witty, endearing, friendly and very sincere.  I imagine that even outside of a professional setting, she is the same person.  I doubt the same cannot be said for her conservative opposites on Fox News or talk radio, who have admitted that they do not believe in what they espouse, they do it to entertain and make loads of money.  And who knows, they may even be normal, sane people when they are not on the air, rather than the psychotic, paranoid, despotic fear mongerers that they are on broadcast.  Again, it speaks volumes about Rachel Maddow’s integrity that she believes and practices what she presents while on the screen.

To see the show in its entirety, go to the Rachel Maddow Show and check the “Previously” link on the left for the October 26, 2010 broadcast.

I get it, but my mayor is clueless

Sunday, July 18th, 2010
I get it, but my mayor is clueless

I have lived in two rather large metropolitan areas: the Twin Cities, with its two million people, and Los Angeles, with, well, way too many people. I chose to move to Anchorage eleven years ago not because I was looking for urban, but because I was looking for wild with just the right amount of urban. I have grown in my knowledge over time that I had made the right decision, enjoying many years hiking, biking and Nordic skiing on Anchorage trails, enjoying fishing for salmon in its streams, savoring moments paddling in my canoe on its lakes, and enjoying picking berries in its forests and alpine slopes. Most of all, over those years, I have enjoyed photographing in the wild places of Anchorage, in its greenbelts, watersheds, valleys and coastal areas.

I have lived here only eleven years, but I get it. I get why Anchorage is a special place. I get what makes it stand out against Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York … all the cities where I have been. Anchorage has actual, real wild habitat within the confines of the actual city, and most of that is accessible by the public. You can see bear, moose, red fox, coyote, even wolves within the confines of the city. You can fish for salmon only a five minute walk from downtown. You can enjoy the call of a loon in the evening if you live near a lake. You can be on a mountainside picking blueberries after only a twenty minute drive or so.

I get it. But our mayor, Dan Sullivan, sure as hell does not.

About two years ago, I made contact with the Great Land Trust to put my photography to use in helping them to secure wild places so they could be set aside for conservation purposes. Simply put, the Trust works with private landowners who have property of some greater value to habitat, public use, or some other aspect that makes the property worth while in preserving for public use or conservation.  The Trust raises money to purchase the land, then either maintains ownership of the land and makes it available for public or conservation benefit, or donates the land to the state or local government, with the caveat that the property is preserved in a conservation trust, often in the form of a conservation easement.  The Trust will also negotiate with private landowners to obtain a conservation easement over the owner’s land, allowing access to public lands that are otherwise not easily reachable. Sometimes that involves purchasing private land outright so that existing parks and preserves, like Chugach State Park and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, have more public access.

Last year, I met up with someone from the Trust to go photograph the Campbell Creek estuary in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. Not that the estuary itself is not already protected to some degree, but the purpose of the visit was to highlight the estuary to assist in fundraising for purchasing private land that would provide public access to the coastal refuge in that area and ensure greater protection for the estuary by limiting development. You see, there is no legal public access to the coastal refuge on the west side of Seward Highway from all the way down by Potter Marsh to all the way up to Kincaid Park. Why not? Because half of the land is all privately owned, and the other half is blocked by an easement for the Alaska Railroad. The Railroad, a State-owned entity, considers it trespassing to cross the tracks to access the Refuge, and I have been threatened by Alaska Railroad security before for, God forbid, trying to access public land so I could photograph it.

So I took these photos of the Campbell Creek estuary in hopes that the Trust would be able to meet its goal to purchase the land. I saw the value of having the access, of making more of the coastal refuge accessible to the public. There is no reason that a handful of property owners should be able to block access. I had not heard of how the Trust was progressing in its effort to secure funding. Until yesterday.

I felt my stomach sink when I saw the headline on the Anchorage Daily News website yesterday: “Mayor turns down deal for park at Campbell Lake.” I read the article, and became increasingly furious as I read. I will not reiterate all of the idiocy that spewed from the mayor’s lips and translated to a few statements in the article, but the most egregious were his assertions that there is not enough money to manage the parks as it is, and the land would be better used to plant thirty or forty homes anyway. But the worst, the absolute worst, is his claim that we have too much parkland already. Among the too many parks that the mayor identified is the Lake George Preserve, which can only be accessed by float plane. Yep, I bet a lot of people can freely get out there.

I have to wonder if our mayor even uses the parks. Has he ever been to Jewel Lake on a hot day? How many families enjoy just that one park over a weekend? I will bet you anything, because I have seen that park on busy days, that it is a lot more than thirty families. The whole point of having parks is that they are enjoyed by the many – by whoever wants to – not just the few. They provide recreation, solace, peace and enjoyment to anyone, regardless of their station in life. They add VALUE to a city that a subdivision never could. When you look at national listings for livable cities, do you see a category for “Developable Land”? Or, do you see a category that highlights park and recreational space in the city? I think we know the answer to that question. Anchorage has not been named an All-America City four times because of the amount of its developable land.

And, I am sorry, but it is a lame, pathetic, hollow and convenient excuse to say the city cannot afford to maintain another park. The main point of this property purchase was to provide public access to the coastal refuge. You know what that takes? A trail. I have maintained hiking trails before. It is not that challenging, and certainly not rocket science. Given this mayor’s financial decisions to date, the fact that there is not money in the budget to maintain more parks, or maintain the existing ones better, is not for lack of money. It is for lack of respecting the value that those parks and open spaces provide to our city.

Instead, the city is more than willing to throw all sorts of tax breaks for developers to tear up the land and install ugly, gaudy, rapacious strip malls or other monstrosities, with little or no control over aesthetics. If our mayor wants sprawl, he can move to the Midwest. I would prefer if he moved to some smalfl suburb that really is a city wannabe, and he can sprawl and develop to his heart’s content. I just don’t want him to do that with our city. Providing $2.7 million to set aside this land along the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge would provide more long-term value to far more people than any other expenditure of $2.7 million for private development could. And that is really the problem here, our mayor has no interest in the public good; his interests lie more in how much money someone can make on selling land to build thirty homes.

And let us not forget that it was a private landowner who made the decision to partner with the Great Land Trust to set aside this land for the public good. If we are so respectful of the rights of landowners to make decisions on the disposition of their land, why does our mayor not value that decision when it benefits the entire community?

I share images from Alaska with people from all over the world, whether on my website, my blog or my Facebook fan site. Quite often, the most feedback I receive are from images I have captured right here in the Anchorage bowl. People are often so amazed that so much beauty in the land can exist in an urban environment. They share their envy when I show them images of wildlife I have captured within Anchorage’s many suitable habitat areas. They tell me how lucky I am.

There is a reason that the Anchorage Convention and Visitor’s Bureau chose “Big Wild Life” for its marketing slogan. Anchorage is not great for its restaurants, its museums, its live music, its theatre, or all the other things you can find in other cities. That is because you can find them in other cities! I cannot think of another city this size in the United States where you can do all of the things you can do, see all of the wildlife you can see, in the outdoors, that you can do in Anchorage.

The mayor has simply reached a new low in his total and complete disregard for the values of green and wild spaces, wildlife and habitat in this city. If he does not see value in greater public access to designated park and refuge lands, if he does not see value in protecting and celebrating our wild and green spaces, if he does not see the value of our wildlife (see earlier comments this summer on brown bears by our mayor), if he does not see value in promoting what makes Anchorage great, then he is the mayor of the wrong city. I urge everyone to call, write, email, fax, or even make a personal visit to City Hall and tell the mayor’s office to reverse his position and allow the funding to go through for the purchase of the land to provide the access to the coastal refuge and provide even greater assurances that the Campbell Creek estuary will be protected and enjoyed.

Two views

Friday, February 26th, 2010
Two views

When driving through the Pacific Northwest, you can see two different kinds of forest: alive and thriving, or clear-cut and dead.  These two different types of forests represent two vastly different views not only of what forests are good for, but what benefits are derived from natural resources in general.  One school envisions the forest as a place that provides habitat to numerous animals, provides the nutrients needed to make for health fish spawning streams, filters and cleans surface water before it enters the ground table or provides drinking water, and provides numerous recreational opportunities for humans.  The other school sees the trees in terms of board feet, jobs, and short-term business returns.  The first school sees the logging industry as fouling a valuable resource that belongs to everyone.  The second school sees “environmentalists” as interfering with their right to log the trees. 

I am going to step out on a limb and say that there is no right answer on the subject.  I say there is no “right” answer because such a statement assumes that there is a choice.  There simply is not.  Our short history of industrial development has shown us time and time again that industry simply does not care about the greater good, and inflicts long term and often irreversible damage upon wildlife and ecosystems to provide benefit to individuals who have long since died.  While those now-dead people can no longer enjoy the short-term economic gain they achieved, those of us who remain today are stuck with the consequences. 

Take logging, for example.   The first thing to realize before discussing the difference in values between the two schools is to understand the subject.  The vast majority of pulp produced in the United States comes from private lands; as much as 96%.  Private land is also more suitable for logging than national forest lands, which provide a much lower yield of usable timber due to steeper, higher elevation terrain.  With few exceptions, there is nothing stopping a private landowner from logging on his or her own land and “environmentalists” are not involved in combatting such logging operations.  The focus of the fight is on public lands, mostly national forests and some state forests in the Pacific Northwest.  Yet, unlike those companies that log on public land, that private landowner is financially responsible for creating the infrastructure necessary to log the timber – he has to build his own roads to access the timber, build the bridges, and do whatever else is necessary to access and harvest that timber.  He also has to pay the market value of the land where the timber is located; most owners are not going to give away their land for free.  But, if you log on national forest land, you don’t have to incur those expenses and you don’t have to pay a fair market value for the lease of the land you will use for logging operations because the formula the Forest Service uses guarantees that the timber is sold below cost.  In the 1990s, the federal government subsidized logging on national forest lands to the tune of $8 billion, much of which went into infrastructure construction. 

Another important statistic is the impact of “anti-logging” activities on regional employment, logging jobs.  But the truth is, federal timber supplies are insignificant to the lumber and wood products industry. Between 1988 and 1996, the amount of timber logged from national forests dropped by 70 percent, from 12.6 billion board feet to 3.9 billion board feet. During this period, national employment in lumber and wood products jobs actually rose. In 1988, the lumber and wood products sector supported 771,000 jobs with a $15.2 billion payroll. In 1996, the sector supported 778,000 jobs with a $20 billion payroll.  The myth that halting logging on national lands hurts jobs is the equivalent of the “death panels” claims being bandied about today in the healthcare debate.   In reality, automoation is more to blame than “environmentalists.”  Between 1979 and 1988, while logging levels increased, more than 26,000 timber jobs disappeared. Due to automation, it takes only 3 workers to produce the same amount of timber today as it took 5 workers to produce in 1979. 

So, back to my two schools of thought, starting with the pro-logging lobby.  Essentially, this school is clamoring for logging on public lands for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny.  Logging in national forests is not crucial to the survival of the industry or for providing jobs.  And not only is logging not necessary, the logging industry is given special treatment in the form of subsidies and low lease rates that are not provided for logging on private lands.  There simply is no reason to log on public lands, period.  Yet, it survives in this country today, clinging on for dear life, kicking and screaming any time anyone attempts to take away its toy. 

For the other school of thought, those who oppose logging on public lands have to fight not only the industry, or the government that supports it, but public misperceptions and misinformation about why logging on public lands should continue.  And for all those temporary benefits derived for a select few from over a century of heavy logging, we and future generations have only dwindling forests and related resources to show for it.  The United States was originally blanketed with a billion acres of forest.  Now, only 40 million acres remain uncut, providing clean water, recreational opportunity, important wildlife and fish habitat, and clean air to a society in ever increasing need of all those things. 

Aside from talking about numbers or values, or short-term versus long-term gain, there is also the basic aspect of aesthetics.  The following photos were taken from state forest land in Oregon.  You tell me which one you would prefer to drive or hike through.