Teresa Clemmer talks about the zigzag way
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Teresa Clemmer at Flattop with a Trustees intern.

Teresa Clemmer talks about the zigzag way

By Teresa Clemmer

The trajectory of my life has always been more of a zigzag than a straight line. 

Teresa on a hike in Japan, July 1993. Family photo.

I spent my early years living in San Diego, Miami, Tokyo, and Northern Virginia.  My teenage years were mostly in San Diego with my mom, but my sister and I took extended side trips to Jamaica, Venezuela, and Ecuador to spend time with our dad.  Then I went to college at Princeton in New Jersey, completed a year-long public interest fellowship in the San Francisco area, spent a second year in the Florida Keys, went to law school at Georgetown in Washington, DC, and then moved back to San Francisco cutting my teeth there as a young lawyer. 

Although I loved the Bay Area, I struggled to get outdoors as much as I had hoped due to the grueling schedule for young associates and the long distances and heavy traffic involved in getting out to the mountains.  So, when a headhunter called with news of a potential job in Alaska, I jumped at the chance. 

Zigging north to Alaska

My first visit to Alaska was for a job interview in early March 2001, and I stuck around for what turned out to be a glorious weekend.  Downtown Anchorage was bustling with the ceremonial start of the Iditarod.  Anchorage also happened to be hosting the Special Olympics World Games that year.  This meant the mushers were being cheered on by coaches and athletes from 80 countries, along with the locals. 

Teresa after moving to Alaska the first time, 2001. Photo by a friend.

The mountains encircling the city were craggy and white; the skies were bright blue; the dogs were excited; the air was cold and crisp; I was in love.  I only fell more in love with Alaska every day that passed after I arrived. 

Alaska was full of outdoorsy transplants, like me, who were always up for a hike or a bike ride and willing to teach you how to do crazy things, like climb up waterfalls of blue ice with spiky medieval-inspired gear.

I also got a taste of rural Alaska early on.  Within three weeks of arriving, my law firm plunked me on a plane by myself to travel out to a small village to do some interviews.  I tromped around the frozen bed of the Yukon River and met some wonderful people.  That trip opened my eyes to a completely different way of life than I had ever experienced before. 

Zagging  to Vermont

After a few years, I made my way into the offices above the Snow City Cafe for my first stint at Trustees for Alaska. 

I worked on a variety of projects, but my main focus was the Chugach National Forest.  I learned a lot about public land management, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to work with a coalition of great people in various client and partner organizations.  Trustees was full of fun, smart, and dedicated people too.  We worked hard and played hard together and laughed a lot along the way. 

Hiking with a Trustees intern in 2004. Photo by Justin Massey, former Trustees attorney.

Romance intervened a few years later.  In the space of about 15 months, I met my husband and had a baby.  With both our families clamoring for more access to the small creature, we decided to move and ended up in Vermont. 

During our four years there, I worked as a professor at Vermont Law School and directed their environmental clinic.  It was a kid-in-a-candy-store kind of job, with amazing opportunities to teach courses, write articles, work with students, and litigate cases.  We took trips to places like Maine (for work with members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe who were opposed to a proposed LNG terminal in their traditional homeland), Denmark (with a delegation of students and faculty attending the United Nations Climate Conference), and Puerto Rico (for work with rural communities opposed to a pipeline project that threatened their way of life as well as dozens of endangered species). 

With Vermont Law School students at the UN climate summit in 2009. Unknown photographer.

More generally, Vermont was a lovely place to live, especially in the spring and fall, and we bonded with our small-town neighbors during the flooding of Irene and its aftermath.  Still, I never got over feeling homesick for Alaska. 

Alaska or bust for real

Fortune smiled on me when an opportunity opened up to return to Alaska and work for a boutique law firm, Bessenyey & Van Tuyn LLC, headed by a fellow alumna of Trustees for Alaska. 

We packed up, drove across the country, and put our roots down in the town of Palmer, which truly lives up to its motto “Alaska at its best!”  Our home is in the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains and a stone’s throw from the Hatcher Pass Recreation Area.  The views surrounding us on our everyday trips to school or the grocery store are so beautiful, we have to pinch ourselves on a regular basis. 

A stop in Canada when heading back to Alaska in 2012. Photo by Jeff Clemmer.

I was lucky enough to work from home too, long before the pandemic made this a common practice.  For my nearly ten years with Bessenyey & Van Tuyn, plus another two years with my solo law firm, Clemmer Law Office LLC, much of my work has overlapped with the work Trustees was doing, including joint efforts relating to the proposed Pebble Mine, Arctic Refuge Leasing Program, and Ambler Road Project.  Through these collaborations, I gained tremendous respect for Trustees’ current crop of talented, experienced, and dedicated attorneys.  When the stars aligned for me to join Trustees as legal director, I was thrilled to accept. 

I started back in August and over the past several weeks have had a great time getting back into the groove at Trustees after my 20-year hiatus.  It’s wonderful to feel that team spirit again, and I hope to support and contribute to the great work they’re doing.