Peggy Tileston is a board member and one of the founders of Trustees for Alaska. Below, she offers decades of perspective on the history and importance of protecting the Arctic Refuge, public lands, wildlife, and clean air and water. Today, the land grab by state and federal administrations makes Trustees’ work more vital than ever.
In the early 70s, thousands of people flooded into Alaska to grab lucrative jobs on the big pipeline construction. Federal, state and local entities were overwhelmed trying to keep up with their responsibilities.
The prevailing attitude of those coming to make a buck or claim land was, “Grab it while you can!” Forget about the people who have lived here for thousands of years, and forget about a way of life that upholds caretaking as the best path to a healthy future.
Meanwhile, the nascent environmental community was virtually all-volunteer and without sufficient resources to respond.
Into this mix formed a small group of Alaskans—including me—who founded Trustees for Alaska to provide a legal arm to build a bulwark against the tidal wave sweeping the state.
Selling out public land to private interests
Since its founding, Trustees has challenged and prevailed in the legal systems from state courts all the way to the federal Supreme Court.
One of the first cases Trustees challenged was an initiative to give away 30 million acres of state land that offered 40 to 160 acres to any resident who had lived in the state three years or more. This willy-nilly proposal would have provided a field day for speculators and made a mockery of land use planning.
The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court where the initiative was ruled unconstitutional. This was the first of many ensuing successful arguments for our lands and waters.
From the beginning, Trustees for Alaska has been involved in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. From Secretary of Interior James Watt to Ryan Zinke, we have battled to keep oil and gas development out of this unique and vital area, and to provide legal assistance to the Gwitch’n people, whose food, culture and way of life depends on the Porcupine caribou herd.
The Porcupine herd relies on the coastal plain as its calving grounds and nursery. So do millions of animals, such as migratory birds, polar bears, fish, and other wildlife.
Since those early years, Trustees for Alaska’s dedicated staff have taken on an incredible load of legal work dealing with issues ranging from water quality, mining, offshore oil leasing, wildlife management, and land use.
Consider what Alaska would look like if it had not been for the foresight and determination of the effort in 1974 to establish such an effective legal organization that works so diligently to protect this amazing place.
We need to unify now more than ever
After this month’s election, Governor-elect Dunleavy made his first public appearance before the Alaska Miners Association. Let that sink in for a minute.
He told the audience that Alaska is “open for business,” the same line used by the Trump administration. We all know what that means. We’ve seen it before. We’ve seen the harm done by selling the public’s natural resources too cheaply and with no accountability. We’ve seen the money stream out of state rather than support our elders, our children, and our communities.
An economist concluded from his research that the oil era has left Alaskans no richer, or even poorer than if oil had never been found.
Those who exploit our water and land to benefit huge Outside corporations do so at the expense of our food, our way of life, our future. These organizations do not put Alaska first and will not fight for Alaskans.
That means we will have to fight for ourselves. I invite you to stand with Trustees to fight for a wild Alaska where we all can thrive.