Some members of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce are questioning the membership of Southeast Alaska's major conservation group after its legal victory in the Kensington Mine tailings case.
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The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, a coalition of 17 organizations in 14 communities throughout the region, has been a chamber member for three years. It faces the possibility of being forced out when the chamber's board of directors meets today at the Juneau Empire building.
The board appeared to be split on the issue. Several members and the chamber's executive director refused to comment until a decision was made on SEACC's membership status.
The chamber's goals include bringing growth, development and a better quality of life to Juneau.
"If you are an organization whose objective is 'A,' and then you have an element in there whose objective is 'Z,' and A and Z are diametrically opposed, you've got to ask the question: Do they belong there?" chamber board member Dick Knapp said.
"I have no expectation that we will be asked to leave," said SEACC Executive Director Russell Heath. "Certainly SEACC is a controversial organization, so there is going to be conflict."
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Heath said he valued his organization's membership in the chamber but didn't know much about the debate.
"They do no harm there, actual harm," Knapp said. "But what they do is gain a facade of acceptance and respectability within the community under the guise of being a member of the chamber and presumably in favor of the chamber's goals."
Knapp said he was willing to listen to other viewpoints about SEACC.
"What have they done in the last 30 years?" asked Fred Marino of Arrow Refuse. "How much employment have they brought to the Southeast community?"
The conservation group has done plenty, Heath said.
"Definitions of economic development varies," he said. "We think we have contributed."
SEACC advocates for clean air and clean water, which benefit industries such as tourism and commercial fishing, two of the largest private employers in the region, Heath said. The group also has created a community liaison to build local relationships, he said.
"We are key in maintaining an environment (where) people want to live," he said.
Opposition to SEACC membership arose just a week after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a key component of the Kensington Mine's plan to operate, potentially stalling its opening date for several months. Operators of the project 40 miles north of Juneau were told its tailings disposal plan would violate the Clean Water Act. SEACC was a main plaintiff in the suit.
If the board votes to revoke SEACC's membership, it could mark a first for the Juneau chamber.
"I have been around Juneau for a long time. I am not personally aware of that ever happening," board member Romer Derr said.
Jeremy Hansen, another board member, called the idea of revoking SEACC's membership a "ridiculous thought."
"The only way that a member should be expelled is if they do something unethical," he said.
"I think it is key that organizations like SEACC work with organizations like the chamber," Heath said. "Environmental issues are going to get only more pressing as the years go forward. They are not going to diminish. I think it is really important they work together to solve these problems and to solve these concerns."
Randy Wanamaker, a Juneau assembly member and a Kensington mine supporter, said that while he does not believe that SEACC fosters and promotes economic development, there is no reason to force the organization out.
"It seems to me that if SEACC is a member, they ought to stay a member and be a part of the discussion," he said.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at email@example.com or 523-2276.
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