Last month I had the opportunity to visit Alaska for the first time, and it was more beautiful and eye opening than it was cold – and I was there in January!
My visit focused on supporting efforts in Anchorage to show resistance to the Trump administration’s draft proposed offshore drilling program, doing so by organizing around a public meeting on the issue.
Unfortunately, the government shutdown from January 20-22 was brief but the consequences were far-reaching. Far enough to reach Anchorage, Alaska, where a public meeting had been scheduled for January 23 to give the public an opportunity to learn more about the offshore drilling program. The meeting was postponed at the last minute – just two days before my trip – and rescheduled for later this month due to the shutdown.
What’s more unfortunate, though, is that this meeting is the only chance for Alaskans to provide input on and learn more about a draft proposed program that would open nearly all coastal Alaska waters to development. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has called for 19 lease sales over the next five years in 14 of 15 offshore leasing areas – all but the North Aleutian Basin in Bristol Bay.
The Arctic Ocean is a target in the Trump administration’s draft five-year plan. Here, a bowhead whale slips below the waters of the Chukchi Sea. (Steven Kazlowski / www.lefteyepro.com)
Even without the public meeting, my incredible team of campaigners and organizers were determined to offer Anchorage the opportunity to ask questions and share testimony on the offshore drilling proposal. So we decided to continue on with holding our own open meeting.
But before that would happen, I still had a weekend to tackle. I was determined to pack in as much Alaska-style fun as possible, and thankfully my friends in Anchorage seemed equally as determined to convert me from a city girl to a mountaineer.
Before Alaska, I had seen mountains: the soft-peaked Appalachians, Central American jungle volcanoes and winding Middle Eastern cliffs. But the sharp, snow-peaked beasts surrounding Anchorage are entirely different. I thought I understood the draw of living around mountains, until I saw the Chugach and the Talkeetnas up close and personal. I think I’m closer to getting it now.
View of the Chugach Mountains from Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage. (Noa Banayan / Alaska Wilderness League)
My trip happened to coincide with Women’s Marches all over the country, Anchorage included. Having been one of 500,000 at the DC march in 2017, I was excited to experience the energy of a different city on a similar mission. Anchorage showed up in force, even with temps well below freezing. A large crowd with colorful signs to my right and mountains to my left. It was wonderful and inspiring and really, really rad.
The Women’s March in Anchorage, Alaska. (Noa Banayan / Alaska Wilderness League)
Aside from the march, we went hiking in Palmer, my first time hiking in January-in-Alaska kind of cold. With microspikes and layers galore, we ascended Lazy Mountain. We saw a bald eagle skeptically eyeing us as we paused to take in the view. Pioneer Mountain stood more than 6,000 feet tall across the Mat-Su Valley. I said wow…a lot…mesmerized by the vistas and how I was able to shed down to my sweat-soaked base layer despite it being just 10 degrees.
Hiking on Lazy Mountain with the amazing Megan Reschke, our Public Land and Water Organizer, with Pioneer Mountain in the background. (Noa Banayan / Alaska Wilderness League)
The, on the day of the public meeting, we brought the court reporter and snacks, and Anchorage showed up with sense of community and deeply thoughtful insight and concern for their state. I learned a lot more about Alaska, and more importantly, Alaskans, than I thought possible in a few hours.
There’s this incredibly strong sense of unity and pride behind “Alaskan” that I have yet to see elsewhere. By the same token, I learned there’s frustration behind the narrative pushed on the state by the industry and outside forces, that Alaska is for exploiting over enjoying. The Alaskans I met know the beast that is the fossil fuel industry, and they don’t take these fights lightly.
There were questions that required answers on the spot, answers we didn’t always have like:
- Why did Florida get an ‘exemption’ when Alaska’s coastal economies are just as vibrant and reliable?
- How can we engage other communities when BOEM will not even hold meetings near the Arctic?
Inside our public meeting. (Noa Banayan / Alaska Wilderness League)
As we chatted, many took the opportunity to share with me their favorite trails and sights, should I have the time. Despite only having one day left, their countless recommendations showed me what they most value about their state: the proximity to wild places and the peace that comes with adventure.
Since returning to DC, these landscapes have become a mental screensaver that reminds me of why I come in to work every day. Those views are just a fraction of the beauty and history that we work to protect at Alaska Wilderness League, and that beauty is something I’m only just beginning to understand.
Looking down on Mat-Su Valley from on top of Lazy Mountain. (Noa Banayan / Alaska Wilderness League)
Those of us that find inspiration in the sight of a bald eagle perched on a mountain cannot sit back and let these places, and the values they represent, be exploited for resources we do not need.
To threaten public waters and lands with drilling is an injustice. It is an injustice to the native communities that for thousands of years have relied on subsistence hunting and fishing. It’s an injustice to our future generations of curious explorers that will yearn, like I do today, to experience true wilderness. For the sake of these communities and our future generations, and to allow more people that “wow is this real” moment, we have to move beyond oil and gas.
Make your voice heard on the offshore drilling plan: