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Trapped by contempt

Charles Wohlforth

The Alaska political elite can't be trusted to protect the Alaska environment. Not even on a basic level. So how do we get to a world where local people have the power to care for their own ecosystems?

That's a fundamental question. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, and it will take me a number of posts (and my book) to address it. For now, I'd like to establish the alienation of Alaska's leaders from its people and their place.

Like other Americans, Alaskans as a whole hold most of their elected leaders in contempt. Moreover, the Alaska political elite pursues a strongly anti-environment direction that doesn't reflect Alaska's culture or the will of its people.

Three quick examples of that. Predator control. Opposed repeatedly in Alaska referenda, repeatedly strengthened by the state. Cruise ship environmental and business controls. Imposed by a strong public vote, rolled back as far as possible by the state. Climate change. Serious academic research shows the vast majority of Alaskans believe in it, want to do something about it, and don't trust state leaders when they talk about it (they do trust scientists and their own neighbors).

I experienced a vivid example of this a few years ago listening to our Anchorage public radio station, as Senator Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, and Representative Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, talked about conservation of the polar bear in the face of climate change on a show called "Community Forum." Bunde said (and I paraphrase), that if it comes down to the polar bear or the Alaska economy, he would take the Alaska economy. Doogan quickly agreed.

Just to make clear, they said the extinction of a keystone Arctic predator is less important than the temporary exchange of money among 600,000 of our species's 6 billion members.

But I don't think that's the main reason why Alaskans hold such a low view of their leaders. Members of the political elite often wring their hands about these consistent poll results, and low voter turn-outs, as if the problem is with the public.

What if the public is right?

The recent FBI investigation in Alaska showed the legislature and governor's office to be deeply corrupt. The oil industry's representative in Juneau, Veco's Bill Allen, did the dirty work. Now media reports suggest he's a pedophile, too, likely shielding more politicians from prosecution based on his testimony.

Allen's use of corrupt practices had been uncovered publicly more than 20 years earlier, yet he was allowed to become the most powerful non-elected person in Alaska. Among those he corrupted were representatives Vic Kohring and Bev Masek. Insiders knew for many years that these legislators were intellectually and temperamentally incompetent in their jobs, as Masek's sentencing hearing showed, tragically, when she used her own inability to understand her job as an excuse for her corruption.

The fact is, these people never could have gotten any other job at anything like the pay or skill level of a legislator. Same for former Senate President Pete Kott and some others. Presumably they did whatever necessary to hold onto positions they didn't deserve.

So why did voters keep returning them? Here's a hypothesis I suggest is difficult to counter. Many of those citizens who do vote think of their state government as a dirty business of dividing up resource spoils and use their votes to get their share. They hold their noses and choose people who, for whatever self-serving reasons, will handle a dirty job of making sure the district gets taken care of.

There are certainly good, honorable, hard-working, public-spirited people in public office. One of the sacrifices they make when they serve is the contempt and disrespect of the people they represent, and the low expectations that drag down everything they try to accomplish.

Many people in office don't know how the public see them. Everyone treats them with respect and even honor. Our politeness, and greed, assure they're in a bubble.

Then, every so often, a controversy erupts that drags them down further, like that concerning how much lobbyists can spend on legislator meals without disclosure. The most telling part about that issue was that it passed with a few jokes but not much outrage, because legislators hiding their free lunches is about what people expect.

It's reasonable that those who want to bring real change to our relationship with the environment don't want to get involved with this system. It's a daunting realization, but our government will remain a foe of ordinary people in this cause until it is fundamentally transformed.

Anchorage-based writer Charles Wohlforth's forthcoming book, The Fate of Nature, will be published by St. Martin's Press June 8. Visit Wohlforth's blog or check him out on Facebook.

Talk of the Tundra features commentary by Alaskans from across the state. The views expressed are the writers' own and are not endorsed by Alaska Dispatch.