Monday, September 6, 2010

Catching Up with erin and hig and Katmai - Should They Be Alaska's 2010 "Muckrakers of the Year"?

I. Longtime readers of Progressive Alaska probably know that PA was the first politically oriented Alaska blog to start covering the travels, essays, photography, environmental activism and projects of Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman. My friend Steve Johnson first made me aware of their trek on foot, packraft and skis, from Seattle to Unimak Island, in 2007 and 2008. In 2008 I produced three lectures by the couple at the University of Alaska Anchorage, during their winter stay in the city, and after the conclusion of what has to be regarded as an epic journey.

Erin's book about their journey, A Long Trek Home, along with Charles Wohlforth's more recent The Fate of Nature, represents nature and environmental writing at its very best.

Beginning June 4th of this year, they have gone on three important treks:

1. Surveying the area around the proposed Chuitna coal development on west Cook Inlet.

2. Trekking through the lands around the Healy coal mines near Denali National Park.

3. And exploring a large area in Arctic northwest Alaska.

They have directly affiliated with Nuka Research (oil spill response and risk assessment) and the DNR Division of Spill Prevention and Response in their treks this year. Here's Erin's description of their current trip:

On August 11, we touch down at Point Lisburne, for a month-long trek on the Chukchi Sea coast. Just inland, coal deposits lie undisturbed beneath the tundra. Just offshore, oil and gas deposits lie untapped beneath the waves. As the climate heats up, coastal villages erode into the sea. Summer sea ice shrinks, leaving stampeding crowds of walruses at coastal haulouts. The world here is shifting quickly, and nearly everything is uncertain.

Coal was first discovered here hundreds of years ago, and small-scale mines supplied coal to power small towns, and the ships plying arctic waters. But the only mines here are small-scale remnants, shuttered long ago when the world on moved to liquid oil. The only modern exploration effort closed down shop in 2009. It would seem that the coal here is merely a piece of geologic trivia - unexplored, undeveloped, and hidden in the far reaches of the inaccessible arctic. But over 4 trillion tons of coal may lie beneath Alaska's wilderness - perhaps 10% of the worlds total. Most of this can be found beneath the tundra in the northwest corner of the state - under the foothills of the Brooks Range, and on the coast of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. But coal is higher impact than almost any alterative. In my opinion, an increased reliance on coal is one of the darker paths we might walk down.

Their young son, Katmai, is accompanying them, and Erin is getting quite pregnant. As time goes by, and I discuss this young couple's amazing accomplishments with friends, I'm more baffled all the time about how little attention they have gotten in the national or Alaska press.

How can a resource like The Discovery Channel be wasting their time with the Palins and their warped vision of Alaska, when they or another "nature" channel could positively inspire young people with the real - not fake - expeditions of Erin, Hig and Katmai?

erin & hig in a tiny raft, and hundreds of sea lions

Palin sitting on a dead anmal

The Palins and a bear by a creek

There have been a few good articles about the family, even one in the New York Times. Uh, that would be the NYT Garden & Home section, though. The gossip blog, GAWKER, in an article about the NYT piece, called erin and hig "The most irritating New York Times couple ever." Though the blog piece was snark, some of the commenters didn't realize that.

Local coverage has been sporadic. Craig Medred, having written the first comprehensive article about them in the Alaska press, back in early 2008, has not revisiting the couple's adventures since moving to the Alaska Dispatch, even though he's indicated to me he would like to.

Mike Campbell at the Anchorage Daily News wrote an article about the present trek, just as it was starting. It is worth a complete read.

II. If you are a member of Cook Inletkeeper, as Judy and I are, it is time to submit suggestions for the 4th annual Alaska Muckraker of the Year award. The three previous recipients were:

2007: Ray Metcalfe, former Alaska legislator, present community activist and anti-corruption icon, who some claim was key to starting the FBI investigation of Veco and the Alaska legislature. Ray's probably the person most responsible for keeping Tony Knowles from going in and mucking up the Scott McAdams campaign right now. Ray claims he's got more up his sleeve on Tony.

2008: Riki Ott, the world's leading expert critic on the toxicity of oil spill dispersants. Ott's two books on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and her efforts to de-person large multinational mega-corporations got her the award. Her efforts this year, down in th BP oil spill area in and around the Gulf of Mexico, warrant a Macarthur Award, at least. She is helping to save lives on a daily basis.

2009: Jeanne Devon, creator of Alaska's most important multi-topic political blog, The Mudflats. Devon has also been covering the Chuitna coal project area this year, and in the wake of the BP oil spill, helped raise national awareness of the continuing presence of oil on Prince William Sound.

For 2010, who is out there that has been doing high quality research into problems normally taken on by "muckrakers"?

Muckraker: primarily, a reporter or writer who investigates and publishes truthful reports involving a host of social issues, broadly including crime and corruption and often involving elected officials, political leaders and influential members of business and industry.

In a number of instances, the revelations of muckraking journalists led to public outcry, governmental and legal investigations, and, in some cases, legislation was enacted to address the issues the writers' identified, such as harmful social conditions; pollution; food and product safety standards; sexual harassment; unfair labor practices; fraud; and other matters. The work of the muckrakers in the early years, and those today, span a wide array of legal, social, ethical and public policy concerns.

Erin and Hig list the issues they seek to perform research upon as:

Alaska Coal
Alaska Fisheries
Alaska Metal Mining
Alaska Oil and Gas
Climate Change
Renewable Energy

They haven't, like Metcalfe, exposed high-level corruption or shady deals. They haven't, like Ott, directly challenged huge energy monopolies, lectured nationwide in favor of a consitutional amandment, or gone to the Gulf to educate thousands of coastal dwellers and fishers. They haven't, like Devon, created an online international community of responders to a host of issues.

The detail of their work and its potential long-range implications are difficult to assess, and their ongoing studies often end up buried amongst the effors of groups with which they collaborate or to whom they report.

Other Alaskans certainly should be considered for 2010 efforts. Preeminent among them is Shannyn Moore, for the sheer volume and quality of output from her daily radio show, and weekly TV interview hour. Shannyn has been on Cook Inletkeepr's board of directors, though, so some might think the award inappropriate. Not me, though.

Who are some others, besides Erin & Hig, or Shannyn Moore, who have been our outstanding muckrakers in 2010?

image - Katmai and hig, picking berries near Cape Lisburne

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