To many Alaskans, 'environmentalist' is a pejorative term

Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Harry Crawford is an ironworker with a deep-fried Southern drawl and pro-union politics. It is difficult to imagine him hugging a tree.

But Crawford, an incumbent state representative from East Anchorage, is spending much of his re-election effort trying to convince voters that he is not bent on trying to stifle development in Alaska.

"I believe I've had to explain it 100 times at the door," said the first-term Democrat, who tells voters he has lobbied hard to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.

Crawford is one of many Democratic candidates in Alaska - including gubernatorial candidate Fran Ulmer - who have come under fire for having the support of environmentalists.

Tom Atkinson, executive director of Alaska Conservation Voters, said he has never seen so much anti-environmentalist election talk in his 31 years in Alaska.

For more Juneau Empire coverage of the November 5 general election, please visit the Juneau Empire Elections Guide.

Two Alaska heads of environmental groups, Deborah Williams and Jim Ayers, were even called "enemies of Alaska" in a recent advertisement that linked them to Ulmer.

And the label "extreme environmental groups" seems to be on the lips of Republican candidates statewide. A television ad for Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, uses the language.

Republican Art Nelson, Crawford's opponent for the East Anchorage state House seat, also has used the language in a campaign advertisement, and said it resonates with voters who are tired of groups that seem opposed to all development in Alaska.

"If groups like that are willing to support your campaign, it might be an indication of your ideals," Nelson said.

Alaska Conservation Voters and its educational arm, the Alaska Conservation Alliance, spent $377,000 on the November 2000 election. Much of that was to fight ballot proposals that would have banned citizen initiatives governing wildlife management and eased some restrictions on wolf hunting.

That year, the group also spent about $161,000 to help its favored candidates gain inroads into the Republican-dominated Legislature. Ten of the 31 legislative candidates the group supported took office, including Crawford. Crawford at the time said that the group's support helped.

Much of the "extreme environmentalist" talk this year has come from a new soft money group called Supporting Alaska's Free Enterprise. Its executive director, Curtis Thayer, is a veteran campaign manager for Alaska's Republican congressman, Don Young.

Thayer said SAFE is working to counter the growing influence of environmental groups in Alaska's elections. Alaska Conservation Voters emerged about five years ago and showed muscle in the 2000 elections.

The group includes 32 organizations, including the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, Friends of Potter Marsh and the Arctic Audubon Society.

The group's director, Atkinson, said Alaska Conservation Voters does not oppose development but believes it can be balanced with a clean environment. He thinks voters will resist anti-environmentalist rhetoric.

"We want candidates ... to support clean air, clean water and livable communities," Atkinson said. "We know that the majority of the Alaska public supports the same thing."

Some Democrats have become a little gun-shy about environmentalist support. Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis of downtown Anchorage said he turned down money from Alaska Conservation Voters to avoid attacks.

Just the same, his current election opponent, Republican Harold Heinze, went after Ellis for being lauded by the group as a "conservation champion" for his voting record on several bills.

Stephen Haycox, a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said he believes the rise in anti-environmentalist campaign talk stems from uncertainty over the state's economic future.

The state government's operating budget has been running several hundred million dollars in the red, and the main budget reserve account is projected to run dry in a few years. Haycox said people are worried about what that will do to the economy.

Also, the bulk of the state's economy hinges on federal spending and oil activity, he said, both of which are driven largely by forces outside of Alaskans' control. That means there tends to be a high level of job insecurity in Alaska, he said.

"People of course say they love the environment," Haycox said. "But very few people come here for the environment. They come here for a job."

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