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.