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Nonprofit forms to dispel local, regional development myths

Group says tourism, mining, fishing, timber vital to economy

Posted: Friday, May 15, 2009

Juneau banker Tom Sullivan rose at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Thursday and said his daughter had come home from fourth grade telling him she was playing an environmentalist in the school play. Among the facts she had learned along the way: Mining kills fish, clear-cutting destroys streams, and free-floating fishing nets wrap around whales and kill them.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"Yikes," murmured someone in the audience.

Perhaps there is another side of the story, Sullivan said. For the moment, he was horrified at the lesson his daughter had taken away. Where was the talk of the jobs mining has created, the sustainability of Alaska's fisheries?

He urged the luncheon's speakers, founders of the nascent advocacy nonprofit First Things First Alaska Foundation, to take their education project into the schools.

First Things First aims to weigh in on tourism, mining, fisheries, timber and transportation in Juneau, to explain that responsible development is vital to Juneau's and Southeast's survival. The embattled Kensington gold mine is first on their Web list of issues.

Some of Juneau's most prominent business leaders created the nonprofit organization in the last year out of their frustration with what they say is environmentalist propaganda paid for by non-Alaskans.

"The fact that the environment can be protected while the resources are being utilized is being confused and distorted by these outside groups," their mission statement reads.

For example: Berners Bay was a thriving mining area 100 years ago, said Neil MacKinnon, whose relatives were there. That it is now considered wilderness is evidence that mining's impacts aren't permanent, he said.

The foundation's representatives - directors Scott Spickler and MacKinnon, and chairman Fred Morino - did not accuse specific environmental groups.

Morino said that's because he's not there to pick a fight.

"What we're trying to do is educate," he said.

But after the talk he cited Lower 48 contributions to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. Representatives from SEACC sat on the sidelines at the luncheon.

The chamber speakers were met with passionate thanks from several audience members.

"What we do is fish," said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of At-Sea Processors Association. "We are not a public relations firm, or an educational one ... It's difficult to overcome the sound bites."

People opened their checkbooks, too. First Things First is on a shoestring budget to start with and wants grassroots support.

But like SEACC, the group also is open to Lower 48 money. Morino said he does not worry about being influenced.

"I won't take money if somebody says, 'You have to print this,'" he said.

SEACC is the lead opponent on the Kensington lawsuit and the Juneau Access Road, and also is a Chamber of Commerce member. Despite the anti-environmentalist tenor of lunch, Mark Gnadt of SEACC said he welcomed First Things First.

"I'm all for it," he said. "I encourage an open, public dialogue. I think Alaskans are smart enough to understand the facts."

Shelly Wright of Southeast Conference reached out to SEACC's Rob Cadmus and Gnadt after the talk.

"People hate you," she said frankly, seeking a solution.

This long-standing rancor was not productive, Wright said. Where could the two sides find common ground? She pointed to Southeast's small hydroelectric projects and renewable energy as examples. Above all, she said, do not concentrate on the ugly history.

"Don't look back," she said. "Maybe that is the secret."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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