Environmentalists ready for ANWR fight, with vets in their camp

Genevieve Chase, an Army vet from Idaho, says she’s inspired to preserve ANWR in its natural state. (Photo: Liz Ruskin/APRN)

With Donald Trump about a month away from the White House, Alaska’s congressional delegation sees a chance to finally open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The environmental lobby is ready for the fight. And they’ve got some new, patriotic allies on their side: military veterans. It’s not clear, though, if drilling advocates intend to mount a very visible ANWR campaign.

Genevieve Chase served in the Army in Afghanistan, where she earned a bronze star and a purple heart. For years, the Sierra Club has been taking veterans like her into the wilderness to heal. Chase said a special trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge restored and inspired her.

“I wish I could bottle that up, and I wish I could send as many vets there as possible to experience the incredible vastness and to see the land,” Chase said, “The country that we defended.”

While Chase was in the refuge, she said she heard or felt a message: “Don’t play small in the world.”

“It changed my life,” Chase said. “And that’s why I’m here.”

The Porcupine Caribou herd on the coastal plain of ANWR. File photo: USFWS
The Porcupine Caribou herd on the coastal plain of ANWR. File photo: USFWS

“Here” at that moment, was a comfy couch in the Washington, D.C. office of the Alaska Wilderness League, at the base of Capitol Hill. The League was founded in the 1990s to be a permanent presence in the capital, fighting to keep oil rigs out of ANWR and to preserve other parts of Alaska. They, with the rest of the green lobby, have made the Arctic refuge a potent symbol. They can marshal a torrent of constituent phone calls to wavering lawmakers when they need to. Now, they’re reaching beyond their usual membership to help spread their message.

“If it wasn’t for our public lands I would never have survived the transition home,” one vet said in a video shot during a trip in the Arctic refuge, amid clouds of mosquitoes. The video was made for a coalition that includes the Alaska Wilderness League.  “So let’s get out there as military veterans and protect the lands that are helping save us.”

The Alaska Wilderness League, year in and year out, has a budget of about $3 million and a staff of 21.

Its counterpart in Washington used to be Arctic Power, a largely state-funded effort to press Congress to open ANWR. Their side used to bring veterans to the hill, to make a national security argument for more domestic oil production. Now, Arctic Power has no budget and no office due to state budget cuts and the Obama years, when it was obvious no ANWR bill would become law. Arctic Power board member Gail Phillips said they’re beginning to take themselves out of mothball status. They haven’t decided yet whether to seek money to join the fight.

“We’re just getting re-grouped,” Phillips said. “So we’re just in the beginning of reorganization.”

Even with GOP control of Congress and the White House, even with a cabinet that would be the oil industry’s dream team, it’s not clear ANWR drilling tops anyone’s priority list, outside of Alaska and its 3 members of Congress.

“Compared to the past, we haven’t seen as much advocacy promoting ANWR,” Dan Simmons said. Simmons is a vice president at American Energy Alliance, an industry-supported advocacy group.  “Why that is I’m not 100 percent sure.”

Simmons’ boss is the head of Trump’s energy transition team. His blueprint for Trump’s energy policy calls for more development in Alaska. It mentions the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and the National Petroleum Reserve. It says nothing about the Arctic Refuge. Simmons said after eight years of Obama, trade associations need time to sift through their priorities.

“It’s definitely important, for the state of Alaska,” Simmons said. “But it’s tough to say how the energy industry views ANWR.”

Kyle Parker, an Anchorage attorney who represents companies in the oil sector, said it’s fine with him if there’s no big, noisy ANWR fight next year.

“In Alaska, for years, people talk about ‘ANWR ANWR ANWR,'” Parker said. “I hope that’s not the focus of the new administration.”

Parker said his clients would rather see the Trump administration ease rules and policies elsewhere on the North Slope than see Congress and the administration mired in another tangle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.