Unlikely allies

PHOTO/Brian Wallace/JUNEAU EMPIRE
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Kate Troll is seen with former state Natural Resources Commissioner Pat Pourchot. Troll is executive director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance. Pourchot is a board member for Alaska Conservation Voters.
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When it comes to green, some Alaskans see red. Green groups, that is, not the currency.

For these Alaskans, what comes to mind is locking up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or Greenpeace activists chaining themselves to trees.

But there are all stripes of conservation organizations, and while some do seem to use Alaska as a national fundraising poster, there are others based here, whose members are our neighbors. In fact, they are us. Alaskans pride themselves on being conservationists and taking care of the place where we live.

That may explain why, getting down to brass tacks, Alaska-based conservation groups are pretty effective at what they do here. The message resonates.

This year, the Alaska Conservation Alliance was very effective in getting its key legislative goals accomplished, despite a state administration and Legislature run by pro-development Republicans.

The bottom line, asks Kate Troll, the executive director of the conservation alliance, is who could be against clean air and water, and the protection of wildlife habitat?

The alliance is the statewide coalition of Alaska conservation groups, and Troll says its polls show Alaskans agree with the goals of the member organizations by wide margins.

"We found 91 percent of Alaskans saying clean water is important to very important. Seventy-five percent said toxic waste contamination is important and 74 percent say energy conservation is important," she said. The numbers are from a poll done in February by Hays Research Group, she said.

Roughly 38,000 Alaskans in 40 regional conservation groups are part of Alaska Conservation Alliance, and one of Troll’s major initiatives is to use a more pragmatic approach in building understanding and consensus with other Alaskans, and, in particular, the state’s business community.

A former official in the state Department of Fish and Game and executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, a statewide association of fish harvesting groups, Troll has learned how to tread carefully through the minefields of Alaska resource conservation politics. She has been involved in Alaska resource and conservation issues for 29 years.

"Alaska’s future depends as much on a sound economy as on a sound environment," she said. "The more people in the business community realize that our long-term interests are more allied than polarized, the more we can work together to promote stable communities and healthy ecosystems.

Tadd Owens, executive director of the Resource Development Council, thinks the state’s development community has a lot to gain by talking with Alaskans in the conservation movement.

RDC’s board, in fact, has been engaged in a quiet dialogue with the Alaska Conservation Alliance for about two years. "We felt there are a lot of issues where we might have common ground, but we haven’t even given ourselves the opportunity to explore these," Owens said.

 

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Juneau attorney David Rogers is the Alaska Environmental Alliance’s lobbyist in Juneau. Rogers, a former state environmental official, has represented a wide array of clients, including mining companies.
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The meetings are periodic and ad hoc, and typically involve five to six people on each side. "They give us an opportunity to get to know each other, to build trust," Owens said. Based on these relationships, some RDC members have been able to present their projects to members of the environmental community and learn of concerns before the projects were before government agencies for permitting.

Troll said the Alaska Conservation Alliance will consider development projects on a case-by-case basis, based on certain criteria. The group is supporting a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, for example, as long as the project minimizes environmental impacts, protects wildlands and habitat, and provides incentives for development of clean energy.

"Getting out and publicly stating we support a gas pipeline project within these criteria is a big, proactive step for the conservation community," she said. "I hope to build on that. For example, there is growing interest in getting engaged with utilities to develop a balanced energy plan for Southcentral Alaska. I think this is a positive direction, and one of the best ways to advance our goals."

Troll said the nation "must actively pursue development and integration of new energy sources that are clean and renewable in order to strengthen our economy, reduce dependence on foreign sources of energy and to reverse global climate change that is threat to our way of life.

"Alaska is in a unique position to help shape the energy future of the nation while maintaining our prosperity," she said. The alliance released a position paper on the gas pipeline on May 8.

If that’s a pragmatic approach, it is also one that paid off in the state Legislature this year, where the conservation alliance’s key priority - establishment of a state commission to study climate change impacts - passed both the House and Senate unanimously. Other legislation, such as extending stream protection measures for Southcentral forests, establishing a Knik River public use area and a resolution calling for a "reopener" of the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement to study long-term spill effects, also passed.

"These are significant steps," Troll said. "The overwhelming support for these actions in the Legislature demonstrates that conservation in Alaska can indeed be a nonpartisan value," she said.

Not all of the goals of the conservation alliance were achieved, however. An effort to get legislation to ban mixing zones in salmon spawning areas was unsuccessful.

David Rogers, the alliance’s lobbyist in Juneau, said there was bipartisan support on many of the group’s initiatives this past legislative session. It’s usually assumed that Democrats will support environmental causes, but this year "there were a number of Republican legislators who were open to us, listened to us and ultimately voted with us," Rogers said.

Rogers is a good example of the conservation alliance’s more pragmatic, middle-of-the-road approach to its mission. Rogers is a Juneau attorney who has been engaged in environmental policy and resource issues since 1977, as a state official, legislative advisor and even a lobbyist for mining companies.

Updated: 
11/20/2016 - 5:51pm

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