Hold the Oil

Lunch with an environmentalist offers food for thought

When he walks into Pizzeria Uno at the Arizona Center, it's not hard to believe that Lenny Kohm just came in from the Arctic wilds. With his grizzled beard and plain work clothes, this slight, thin man might have wandered in from a Jack London story, or maybe a Robert Service poem.

Actually, he came from a Comfort Inn where he's staying while he's in town to give a slide show about imperiled Alaskan wildlands. Formerly a nature photographer, Kohm has spent more than a decade traveling the country, trying to convince Americans down here in the Lower 48 of the importance of a tract of land the existence of which most of us are only dimly aware. His story is, indeed, about the Alaskan wilderness, but it's a disconcertingly unromantic yarn, set in the world of Washington party politics and industrial-versus-environmental lobbying.

When we sit down, he hastily orders something simple -- spaghetti with meatballs -- and launches into his tale, starting with a visual aid. He holds up a poster showing a photograph of a majestic landscape of the Great White North. "Basically," he says, "the choice is: Do we want to look at that and see a hundred drill pads at several acres per pad, seven large production facilities, four airfields, two ports, two desalinization plants, a hundred miles of pipeline, 300 miles of road and facilities for 5,000 or 6,000 workers? Or do we want to look at that and see caribou, moose, musk oxen, wolverines, porcupines, lemmings, voles, foxes, wolves, grizzly bear, polar bear and 185 . . ."

The waiter interrupts at this point to inform Kohm that there are no meatballs available, just meat sauce.

"Fine," he says quickly, then finishes his spiel: ". . . 185 species of birds?"

Kohm is in favor of the latter scenario. He's an activist with The Last Great Wilderness Project, which is trying to ensure that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska will be permanently protected from oil development.

Despite the comforting sound of the name, "a wildlife refuge isn't necessarily protected," Kohm explains. "It is really up to the discretion of the administration or the manager of the refuge. It's really like a national forest, kind of multi-use." If Kohm has his way, the refuge will be made part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, the most protected status available to American wildlands.

Established by President Eisenhower as a "wildlife range" in the '50s, the area was expanded in size (from 8 million to 19 million acres) and upgraded from a "range" to a "refuge" by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, signed into law in 1980 by Jimmy Carter in one of his last acts as president. Playing to the local crowd, Kohm notes that Arizona Congressman Mo Udall was instrumental in this legislation. As a compromise with the Senate to get this bill passed, however, an area of coastal plain was designated a "study area" -- that is, it could potentially be developed for oil drilling.

Well, I ask, doesn't that mean the writing's on the wall, and it's only a matter of time before the drilling starts?

Kohm strongly dissuades me from this easy cynicism. "First of all," he notes, "I would say that if the president could sign something that would say it's gonna be drilled, it would be. But he can't do that; it has to be decided by Congress. Currently, neither side has the votes. We have the momentum. Poll after poll for 10 years, the American public has said they don't want it developed."

A man approaches the table and greets Kohm, who introduces him to me -- Rob Smith, a representative of the Sierra Club in the Valley. Smith pulls up a chair but says little; he listens respectfully as Kohm details his group's chances with the current Congress. "You ever think that one person can't make a difference?" Kohm asks. "My hero now is Senator Jeffords."

Our lunches are set in front of us -- spaghetti with meat sauce for Kohm; barbecued chicken pizza for me. I offer a slice to Smith, and he accepts. We both think it's good. I try to steer Kohm away from legislative minutiae and back to his own story: How did he become a career environmental activist? How did this become his mission in life?

Though he seems to regard this as off the point, he does spin me the yarn. A photographer who had traveled the world (he's been to every continent except Antarctica, he says) specializing in animal and landscape pictures, he first went to the Arctic in 1987. "I was on kind of a speculative assignment for Audubon magazine," he says. "In photography, a speculative assignment is when they tell you want they want -- which is hard information to get -- and they say if you come up with something we want, we'll buy it." When he got there, however, says Kohm, "I lost my journalistic objectivity."

This happened, in particular, when Kohm met the Native people of the area -- the Gwich'in, who harvest the porcupine caribou herds that pass through their villages on the way to the coastal plain to do their calving.

"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.

"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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