The Epic Political Battle Over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Happy Earth Day 2022

The following excerpt is taken from Finis Dunaway’s Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice, winner the 2022 Spur Award for Contemporary Nonfiction by the Western Writers of America.

I don’t make a habit of going to funerals, especially for people I’ve never met. So I feel a little sheepish finding a seat in one of the back rows of the Foscoe Community Center. It’s late October 2014 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and more than 100 people have filed into the spacious, sunlit room for this memorial service. Jeans, sweaters, and flannel shirts predominate among the guests. Many hail from nearby com­munities like Boone, but others have come from elsewhere, including a representative of the Gwich’in Nation all the way from Alaska. A slate of speakers describes the deceased as their mentor and their brother. They share stories about how he inspired people to join struggles for justice. Some marvel at the unlikely chain of events that brought us together that day. It all started almost three decades earlier when Lenny Kohm jour­neyed to the Arctic and then somehow became a quietly legendary activist.

Lenny Kohm in the Arctic. Photographer, date, and exact location unknown.

In 1987 Lenny Kohm’s life became entangled with the epic political battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Tucked away in the north­eastern corner of Alaska, the Arctic Refuge has been the focus of the long­est running public land debate in North American history. Initially set aside in 19601 the refuge provides life-sustaining habitat for caribou, polar bears, migratory birds, and other species. For decades, though, the fos­sil fuel industry and powerful politicians have pushed to turn this unique ecosystem into an oil field. A former drummer and aspiring photographer with no previous background in political organizing, the forty-seven-year­ old Kohm had a sudden revelation in the Arctic. He returned to his home in California, determined to do whatever he could to protect the refuge. Along with some friends, he launched a small grassroots group and put together a multimedia slide show called The Last Great Wilderness. For the next two decades, Kohm took the show on the road. Teaming up with Gwich’in spokespeople from Alaska and Canada, he gave as many as 200 presentations per year across the United States.

I was beginning to research the history of the Arctic Refuge debate when I came across a brief profile of Kohm in an environmental magazine. In­trigued by his unusual story, I started writing Kohm a letter in August 2014 to ask if l could interview him. I paused to do more research and then fin­ished the letter in October. Before hitting send, I Googled his name one more time, just to make sure I had the right email address. The first link to appear was his obituary: Lenny Kohm had died at his home in Todd, North Carolina, on September 25, 2014. He was 74.

I was stunned to read the news. The next day, I ended up talking with a friend of his for almost an hour. Near the end of our conversation, he off­handedly mentioned that he was giving the eulogy at Lenny’s memorial on Saturday. And, by the way, he said, if there’s any way that you can make it down, it would be wonderful to have you here. I wasn’t sure how to re­spond and didn’t know if it would be appropriate to attend. He understood my concerns but encouraged me to come anyway. The service would not be a somber occasion, he said, but a celebration of Lenny’s life. Just before saying goodbye, he insisted, “Lenny would want you to be there.”

Exactly one month after Lenny Kohm’s death, the Foscoe Community Center was decorated with some of his most treasured posses­sions. Resting on a table were the two slide projectors he carried with him as he crisscrossed the country; displayed on the stone mantelpiece were his trusty Pentax camera and a beaded, floral-patterned caribou skin vest given to him by Indigenous people from the North.
Speaking on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation, Luci Beach said that “all of our hearts are heavy for our brother, our uncle, our grandpa.” She talked about the deep connection Lenny formed with Gwich’in communities and praised his photographs of her people. “He saw us as part of the land­scape,” she explained. He also “knew how to listen, how to really, really lis­ten.” Beach was one of approximately fifty Gwich’in representatives who had traveled with him on slide show tours, and she talked about her experi­ences on the road. “He let us be our own spokespeople,” she continued. “He never told us what to say.” And she announced, “If it wasn’t for Lenny, I really think there would be drilling in the Arctic Refuge right now.”

At the potluck dinner that followed, several people repeated this claim to me: Lenny and his Last Great Wilderness show prevented oil drilling from happening in the refuge. I must confess that I felt skeptical. Surely, they were exaggerating. (And who among us has not engaged in hyperbole at a funeral?) Still, the questions gnawed at me: Could Lenny’s low-budget tours have made that much of a difference in such a high-profile environ­mental debate? Could a traveling slide show really have protected the Arc­tic Refuge?

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University.