My Turn: Thwarted by eagles

Environmental groups can strangle towns such as Haines

Posted: Monday, May 07, 2007

It's been nearly three decades since a dinky little sawmill in a dinky little town was forced out of business, taking with it most of the town's jobs.

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It was a dismal time in Haines, for those who left and those who stayed. The situation reminded me of the saying, "When buzzards are circling overhead, buzzard droppings are the least of your problems." But buzzards weren't the problem here - eagles were.

People came from all over the world to see an amazing gathering of thousands of magnificent eagles feasting on the area's abundant salmon supply. The valley the eagles had frequented for centuries became the Alaska Chilkat Valley Bald Eagle Preserve, long a priority of the Alaska Audubon Society.

The mill had operated for four decades and was a significant component of the local culture. The eagles were never in jeopardy, and the Audubon Society's study confirmed counts were at an all-time recorded high. While Audubon and my organization, the Resource Development Council, sought a solution protecting both the eagles and the economy, the long-debated land compromise tilted to the preservation side. The mill failed to get its long-term timber supply. Life went on, but the town never really recovered.

The controversy - logging and milling versus eagle protection - helped a fledgling environmental group, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, make a name for itself. SEACC's campaign to "save the eagles" quickly won national support. The California Sierra Club Defense Fund joined the fray and with SEACC sued the Schnabel Lumber Co. and the state.

The townspeople, angry over losing their major employer, voted to tax themselves to intervene in the lawsuit. The lawsuit was later dismissed, and plaintiffs were ordered to pay Schnabel's court costs. Schnabel, however, lost on appeal and ended up paying plaintiffs $35,000, a bitter pill after all the company had been through. The judge said he didn't want to discourage worthy citizen lawsuits.

For naive me, the experience was a rude awakening. I'd never seen the needs of people and a community so callously disregarded. Nor had I fully understood that when the Alaska mystique is conjured up, facts aren't required. This highly contagious "mystique" was (and still is) guaranteed to cause instantaneous check-writing fever, not just from individuals, but from wealthy foundations.

To SEACC, which reels in more foundation grants annually than the profits of most Alaska businesses, we can say with envy, "You've come a long way, baby." Just one benefactor, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (think Intel), gave a three-year grant in 2004 of $609,000.

Other recent grantors include the Wilburforce and Brainerd foundations, Weeden, Tides, West Wind, Leighty and more. In 2005, SEACC reported receiving $714,826 from foundations; in 2004, $683,962. Between 2000 and 2003 its grants totaled an amazing $2.2 million. Some 80 percent of its revenues come from grants.

SEACC's leaders say they're not against development, but do they speak with a forked tongue? The Moore Foundation answered that in describing its $609,000 grant: "Outcomes for this grant include grass-roots efforts to stop development in the Tongass Region." (This statement disappeared from Moore's Web site after being cited in a Juneau Empire article.)

Strategies to stop mining and timber projects typically include hog-tying sponsors in permit purgatory, proposing costly demands for project redesigns, or filing endless lawsuits, until the investors' money dries up. SEACC is just one high-profile group in the news for its constant obstruction relating to the Kensington Mine near Juneau. Doesn't it matter that Coeur Alaska has spent some $25 million on more than 900 studies over the past decade or that 400 workers may lose their jobs over the latest lawsuit?

Some disturbing economic signals are appearing on the horizon for our great state. What will our options be if proposed expansion of Alaska's oil and gas industry is stymied? Will our fiscal plan include a fallback position for meeting the needs of 670,000 people? There will be more on this in a future column. Meanwhile, watch those buzzards.

• Paula Easley, an Anchorage public policy consultant, serves on the Resource Development Council's board of directors. E-mail her at paulaeasley@yahoo.com.



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