Hold the Oil

Lunch with an environmentalist offers food for thought

"I've probably spent a cumulative total of two years in those villages in the past 14 years. So I've gotten to know them pretty well. They understand that it's really the only place the caribou have to go. They really are -- concerned isn't the right word -- they're terrified. . . . The thing you get from being in the Arctic is that it's a system. If the caribou are there, you know that mosquitoes are there -- God, are they there -- and if the mosquitoes are there you know the ducks are there, and if the ducks are there and the caribou are there you know that the wolves are there and the wolverines are there, and the polar bears are there, and the Gwich'in are there."

Kohm often takes representatives of the Gwich'in with him on his slide tours. "It's very compelling when we have one of them with us, 'cause . . . we don't have caribou in Arizona, so why should we care? But we do have kids and dogs and regular people, and that's what they are. So it's a chance to not do to Native people what we've always done."

A native of Seattle, Kohm now lives -- picks up his mail, that is -- in the small town of Todd, North Carolina. He explains the choice of home base.

Lenny Kohm
Lenny Kohm

"There were several factors," he says. "One was that I couldn't really afford to live in California doing this. Even though I've become fabulously wealthy as an environmentalist, at that time it was even worse. And I'd kind of gotten tired of California and the New Age battering. I got tired of all the crystal-packin' mamas, all of that."

The New Agey image of American environmentalism is a sore spot with Kohm.

"According to polls, 70 percent of the American public consider themselves environmentalists," he observes. "So where are they? Sorry, Rob, but everybody doesn't have to join the Sierra Club. They may not be comfortable in that sort of environment. But I feel it really is our responsibility to maybe facilitate some way that they could be involved in the environmental movement without leaving their comfort zone."

It's time to go. I ask if there's anything Kohm wants to leave me with.

"Write your congressman, and write Senator McCain!" Kohm exclaims. "This is not about Lenny Kohm. It's about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Guys like me come and go, but hopefully the refuge will be there. Always."

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