Tuesday, 2 May 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Yesterday was a perfect spring day here in Washington, D.C. Riding my bike to the Silver Spring Metro station, I thought that such a day is almost enough to seduce a person into thinking this place could be habitable on a permanent basis. But having grown up in Delaware, I know the brutal humid summer that awaits. I and my wife and our two boys eagerly await our return to Alaska in June, when my tour of duty here in D.C. will be over and I go back to running the campaign from our Anchorage office.

I’ve learned a lot about how things work in Washington, which was part of the reason I volunteered to come here for a year with my family.

Would you trade virgin rainforest for this?

Photo: Alaska Rainforest Campaign.

For starters, I’ve learned that you have to watch out for how your issue gets caught up in the horse-trading — that is, the stock-and-trade of politics. Just one example: Alaska’s rabidly pro-timber Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) is trying to raid 4,200 acres of old-growth from the Tongass National Forest so his timber industry buddies can grab it. The only reason he’s got a prayer of pulling off this raid is that he is arm-twisting some Democratic senators who want things out of the Senate Energy Committee that he chairs. To keep the Clinton administration from vetoing or stopping his Tongass raid, Murkowski is planning to throw a chunk of money to the Forest Service so the agency can buy private inholdings in the Tongass. That wouldn’t be such a bad idea, except for one thing — the lands to be bought have already been blitzed in an orgy of clear-cutting. Murkowski’s Tongass raid trades old-growth for stumps — what a deal! It’s not a fait accompli yet, but it’s a difficult fight because folks who normally support our concerns have their own deals going with Murkowski.

I’ve also had an up-close-and-personal look at the extent to which money rules the day inside the Beltway. A friend of mine knows some media consultants and arranged for me to meet with them and talk shop. It was depressing to hear how much money it takes to get your media message out in a credible way. Life would be so much easier if we only had $5 or $10 million to burn on TV spots. But neither I nor any enviros I know move in such rarified financial circles.

A bear at home in the Tongass.

Photo: Alaska Rainforest Campaign.

I’ve been to two fund
raisers: One was a $50-a-head affair, where I was able to chat up a friendly congressman and his chief of staff. At the other, I was a non-paying guest at a $1,000-a-head bash, thanks to a friendly connection, and got a chance to briefly speak with a senator. Both times I felt about as comfortable as an atheist at high Catholic mass.

Washington, D.C., is okay, as an anthropological experience. It’s useful to learn the strange folkways of the powerful tribes that inhabit this corner of the world and make decisions that shape the future of Alaska’s rainforest. And compared to the retrograde anti-conservationist forces that control Alaska’s state legislature, Congress is a bastion of environmental enlightenment. But I know that I am not and never will be a Washington insider. We need the insiders to make the right decisions for Alaska’s Tongass, but to accomplish that, we have to do most of our work from the outside looking in.