By Brian Litmans, legal director
December feels bittersweet this year.
Sweet because I love snowy mountains and am excited to begin a new chapter of conservation work, community engagement, and exploration of new places here in Vermont.
And, also, Alaska holds a special place in my heart, like it does with so many others. Leaving so much that I love about my work and life in Alaska is no easy feat.
These transitions, however rewarding and full of hope, can be challenging. And yet it was a transition that brought me to Alaska to work for Trustees years ago.
After graduating from law school in 2001, I moved to Alaska for a time, working remotely on conservation issues in the lower 48. I fell in love with Alaska and the variety of ways to enjoy the outdoors, often by simply walking out the door. As someone who loves cross-country and backcountry skiing, hiking, trail running, and biking, the recreational opportunities in Alaska are unparalleled.
In the spring of 2007, I was working as a public interest environmental attorney in Portland, Oregon and had been engaged in a number of environmental lawsuits, predominately in the west and involving public land management issues. From fighting for old growth forests to threatened plants like the San Benito evening primrose, I had the great opportunity early in my career to work for organizations doing outstanding work to conserve places, plants and animals, and to protect communities, and air and water from pollution.
But when I saw an opportunity to return to Alaska and join Trustees, I jumped at it. I was eager to move back north and work closely with conservation allies engaged in some of the most pressing conservation battles in the country.
My work with Trustees
My career at Trustees started with a fight to protect the Nome community from the proposed Rock Creek mine. That work provided an expansive opportunity for me to quickly learn about Alaskan politics, environmental laws I hadn’t litigated before, agency permitting processes for mines, subsistence impacts associated with large-scale industrial development, and the conservation movement in Alaska.
Since then, I have worked on an array of issues important to local communities and the nation at-large.
I can’t say enough about the people I met and worked alongside on these issues—their commitment and knowledge, their humor and friendship held fast during the most challenging times. The following list highlights some of the work I was engaged in as a staff attorney and exemplifies what it means to work at Trustees for Alaska:
- Fighting the proposed Chuitna coal mine
- Status: Project never made it through permitting. Leases relinquished.
- Protecting the Seward community and Resurrection Bay from coal dust and coal discharges associated the Seward Coal Loading Facility
- Status: Facility is shut down.
- Ensuring compliance with the Clean Air Act for the Healy 2 coal-fired power facility
- Status: Facility installed scrubbers and will permanently shut down in 2024.
- Fighting the Port MacKenzie rail extension, which would have provided easy transport for coal from the Mat-Su valley
- Status: Project was never completed.
- Fighting the proposed Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge land exchange for oil development
- Status: Agency chose the no-action alternative (no permits or authorizations)
- Protecting the Cook Inlet beluga whale by defending listing under the Endangered Species Act and fighting projects that have adverse impacts to the beluga’s recovery
- Status: The beluga’s listing was affirmed by the court but the beluga population continues to decline.
- Fighting the proposed Knik Arm Bridge
- Status: No construction and inability to finance.
- Fighting the Highway-to-Highway proposal in Anchorage
- Status: Project abandoned. No construction.
- Fighting the Shepard Point road in Cordova
- Status: No construction to date.
- Preserving land withdrawals on BLM lands from mineral entry
- Status: Very few BLM lands have lost these important withdrawals.
- Fighting oil and gas development in the Alpine field on the North Slope
- Status: Despite some success in court, the CD-5 facility moved forward and is now operating.
- Working to defend ANILCA and public lands from motorized use in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
- Status: The National Park Service has not completed its wilderness-backcountry management plan that had the potential to authorize use beyond ANILCA’s intent.
- Fighting the proposed Pebble Mine
- Status: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Clean Water Act permit authorization for the mine and EPA is closer than it has ever been in a process that will bring long-lasting durable protections for Bristol Bay.
What this list does not capture is the hours, the heart, the collaboration and the creative thinking that went into the work that so many of us did together.
When I worked as an attorney with Trustees, I worked on an array of issues with other Alaskans and folks from regional and national organizations. I found great strength and learned so much from them.
More recently as legal director, I worked closely with Trustees’ staff on deeply critical issues that include protecting the Arctic Refuge, Izembek Refuge, and lands in the NPRA, and fighting the state of Alaska’s effort to reduce populations of animals like bears and wolves on federal lands.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the work at Trustees is being able to work with so many incredible individuals and organizations. With every issue and lawsuit, I gained new experience, and also learned more about the issues from colleagues, clients and partners.
Making good change takes time
It takes a long, long time to find success in this work. Not long after I joined Trustees, I was sitting at a conference table with a diverse coalition focused on stopping the proposed Pebble mine. That was back in 2007.
Trustees has worked on the Pebble issue consistently, but my involvement ebbed and flowed over the years. I returned to it in 2014. The fight had transitioned from our successful lawsuit over the State’s failure to follow the Constitution in authorizing exploration at the Pebble site to administrative work with the EPA.
By then, EPA had begun a process to achieve lasting and durable protections for the Bristol Bay headwaters through Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. There have been four lawsuits and a winding road for EPA ever since.
Now, as of Dec. 2, EPA is one step away from securing lasting protections for Bristol Bay salmon and all the communities that rely on that thriving watershed.
In our work, it can take generations of people fighting for their ways of life, fighting for the health of the land and water and animals, to achieve protections for the land that nourishes life, to stop destructive projects that harm people and animals, to drive toward the necessary transition to clean energy and less energy use.
Our work requires vision, perseverance, and fortitude, and at the heart of it, there’s a vison for a just, equitable and thriving future that provides the inspiration needed to work year-in and year-out.
For Bristol Bay communities, that future means going into the coming salmon seasons without the huge, toxic and destructive Pebble mine breathing down their necks, and that protection of the watershed will endure for future generations.
We know we may not always achieve our goals, yet I can’t imagine Trustees not being there fighting tooth and nail for such a future. And that gives me great comfort of mind as I step away from this incredibly important and necessary work.
For now, as I sign off, I look forward to that day in 2023 when I will wake up and read the news of EPA’s brave act to protect communities, salmon, and the waters of Bristol Bay.
That day, I will venture outside of my home in the brave little state of Vermont to hear the raucous cheers of all of those who have worked so hard for this remarkable day–cheers so proud and elated that they are heard and echoed by me 5000 miles away.
Brian Litmans, legal director
(PS. Thanks to supporters like you, we can continue fighting to protect Alaska’s lands, waters and communities. )