Juliet Eilperin on Alaska and Covering Climate
Somehow, I always find myself coming back to Alaska.
I started writing about the 49th state before I had ever set foot there. Having covered national policy and politics since the mid-1990s, Alaska demanded my attention because of its vast wildlands and natural resources, which often came into conflict. Politicians in Washington D.C. constantly sparred over how to balance these competing interests: where to drill, log and mine, where to leave these forests, streams, tundra and seas untouched.
And as the planet warmed, these fights intensified. Parts of Alaska are warming more than three times as fast as the global average, upending hunting traditions that have endured for centuries and thawing permafrost that threatens to destabilize several villages. The state’s coffers are filled by drilling for oil and gas, which then help heat up the planet once they’re burned.
At the same time, the old-growth trees in Alaska’s temperate rainforests store carbon within their roots, trunks and branches, helping slow climate change. Its wide expanse of wilderness offers refuge to many species, including migratory birds, under pressure from rising temperatures and habitat destruction.
So lawmakers fought over these questions, thousands of miles away, and I covered these skirmishes: Whether or not to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, whether or not to build a gold and copper mine near the world’s largest wild salmon run, whether to put the Beaufort Sea off limits to energy exploration.
Some of these policymakers had never been there, and in the beginning, neither had I. The Post had begun tightening its budget, and traveling to Alaska is never cheap. In 2003 I decided to go there for the first time on vacation: nine years later I managed to do a work trip, journeying north of the Arctic Circle.
I’ve been to Alaska half-a-dozen times now, most recently in June, for a trip to explore whether the nascent sea farming industry could bolster its economy and provide a way for Native Alaskans to reclaim some rights over their traditional waters.
It is a place of extremes, on a massive scale. Snow-covered tundra that stretches for miles, with caribou gingerly making their way north so that they can give birth near Teshekpuk Lake. Fairy forests with Sitka spruce, red cedar and Western hemlock trees that stretch more than 100 feet above your head, draped in green lichen that grows in the air. Expanses of water teeming with life, from salmon with sleek, silvery backs to enormous Dungeness crabs.
And like many other places in the United States, and across the globe, people living there are divided about what to do with these natural resources and the fact that rising temperatures and other climate impacts now pose a serious threat to them. Alaska has no state income tax, and oil revenues make up more than three-quarters of the state budget. On the North Slope, where much of the drilling takes place, the industry has brought modern comforts and jobs to a land once dominated by nomadic hunters.
When I traveled in 2019 to a patch of federal land known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska with Bonnie Jo Mount, one of The Post’s staff photographers, we spent time with families in the town of Nuiqsut who were split on the question of whether to keep drilling for oil, or halt it in the face of climate change. It’s a place where there was not an easy answer – unlike some other parts of Alaska, it did not rank as an accessible tourist destination. Martha Itta, who at the time was serving as Nuiqsut’s tribal administrator, told me that when it came to developing more well pads near her community, “I tell myself, I am not going to be defeated.” But some of her closest relatives disagreed. In March the Biden administration approved a massive oil drilling project in the region, Willow, even as it drafted rules to protect 13 million acres of land elsewhere in the reserve.
Hundreds of miles away, in southeast Alaska, different factions had fought for years over whether to log old growth trees. But now, with a moratorium on this logging in place, many of these same people are working to develop ocean farms as a different way to generate jobs. Lia Heifetz, one of the leading entrepreneurs in this space, said that when it comes to this new kind of business, “The industry as a whole has an opportunity to kind of build from the ground floor up, and decide who gets to benefit from it.”
One of the things I’ve grappled with as I’ve covered Alaska – and more broadly, the planet – is who this nature belongs to, and who should chart its fate. To what extent do Native Alaskans, who have lived there for centuries, have the right to shape decisions? Or a timber mill owner whose life savings are at stake, a wilderness guide who’s built a career on giving tourists a chance to see a grizzly bear, and a fisherman who sacrifices sleep on summer nights to haul in as much sockeye as possible in a matter of weeks? What about the generations yet to come, or the plants and animals themselves?
In many ways, this is what environmental journalism means to me. The reporters on our team venture out into the world (or, in some cases, get on the phone, or fire off emails) to discover how the planet is changing. We assess the implications of these shifts, and talk to those affected by them, wherever they may be. Sometimes, they are those living near a mountain of trash, or people in a community hundreds or thousands of miles away from where carbon dioxide emissions first entered the atmosphere that are now facing torrential floods or unrelenting drought. Sometimes we tell these stories with words and photos, but other times we visualize what’s happening in a way that allows our readers to interact directly. They can see how much wildfire smoke has blanketed their community, affecting the quality of the air that they breathe, or which places are most at risk for extreme rainfall.
When I started covering Alaska, there was just one other environmental reporter at The Post and we worked within the health and science team of the National Department. We are now our own department, boasting more than 30 staffers with skills spanning graphics, photo, data and design.
As an empowered team, we illuminate these planetary changes. Our audience decides what to think about them. But to get to travel to these places, and listen to others to tell their stories, is an extraordinary privilege. I stay in touch with several of the people I’ve met in Alaska. We swap photos and updates on our lives. And as I boarded my plane in Juneau this last time, I let them know that I’d find a way to return.
Juliet Eilperin is Deputy Climate and Environment Editor at The Washington Post. She has won two AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards for her climate reporting, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for a Washington Post series on environmental racism.
Homepage image credit: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post