The Arctic Refuge and the Power of Grassroots Visual Culture

On September 6, the Biden administration made a critical announcement about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, canceling the remaining oil and gas leases that had been auctioned off during the waning days of the Trump administration. The announcement marked a major win for environmental and Indigenous advocates, who have been fighting for decades to protect this land from fossil fuel development. The following is an excerpt from Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice, which tells the surprising story of how a little slide show and unlikely alliances helped turn a traditional wilderness battle into a fight for Indigenous rights and environmental justice.

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Praise for Defending the Arctic Refuge:

2022 Spur Awards for Best Contemporary Nonfiction, Western Writers of America
2022 Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize, Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada
2022 Hal K. Rothman Book Prize, Western History Association

Inspirational reading for environmental crusaders of all walks of life.

Library Journal

Since attending Lenny Kohm’s memorial, I have interviewed many people who have stated, without any doubt or hesitation, that his slide show protected the Arctic Refuge. Joe Tetlichi, a Gwich’in representative from Canada who joined Lenny on two Last Great Wilderness tours, said to me, “If it wasn’t for him, there would be oil development on the Arctic Refuge right now.”

“You think so?” I asked. 

“Oh yeah,” he immediately responded. “I don’t think so. I know so. Look at the near close calls we had. Imagine if Lenny never went up for the job? What could have happened?”

Brian O’Donnell, who served as the executive director of the DC-based Alaska Wilderness League for several years, said that Lenny’s project “kept the Arctic Refuge from being destroyed—absolutely.”

It would be easy to dismiss these comments as naive statements regarding the power of images—and one individual—to influence environmental policy. Yet I do not think they are claiming that his slide show had a simple, direct, or immediate effect on politics. Beyond the sheer number of constituent letters and phone calls generated by the tours, beyond the particular elected officials whose positions shifted due to citizen pressure, Lenny’s project created a set of relationships reaching from Capitol Hill to the north of Arctic Circle to cities and towns across the lower forty-eight. It is these relationships that allowed the slide show to have agency in the world. As Brian mused, “How did the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge go from being just a wildlife refuge to being an iconic place that was the biggest environmental fight in the US for decades? It’s never that one meeting in a garden club in Toledo, Ohio, but maybe it’s the thousand meetings in the thousand Toledos around the country. And you can never know which one did it or how this all happened, but I can tell you that it wouldn’t have happened without Lenny.” Brian noted how the slide show tours had short-term effects—blasts of grassroots enthusiasm in the form of letters and phone calls before pivotal votes—but also long-term reverberations: building a larger base of support, people who remained involved in the cause for years to come. And, as Joe and others emphasized, Lenny played a crucial role in forming relationships—in building trust and alliances—between Gwich’in communities and environmental organizations. Joe’s use of counterfactual scenarios— “Imagine if Lenny never went up for the job? What could have happened?”—suggests that at various moments, different outcomes could have occurred.

If it wasn’t for him, there would be oil development on the Arctic Refuge right now.

I first met Joe in the summer of 2016, the eighth year of Barack Obama’s presidency. The Arctic Refuge had been in political dormancy for a decade, as the last major legislative standoff had occurred during the George W. Bush administration. A few months after we talked, Donald Trump was elected president. Spewing climate-change denial and embracing pro-corporate initiatives, his administration immediately launched an all-out assault on environmental regulation and pushed for reckless expansion of fossil fuel development. It took little time for Republican leaders to sneak an Arctic drilling provision into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which was passed by Congress and signed by Trump on December 22, 2017. In the long history of the Arctic Refuge debate, this was the first time both Congress and the president had approved a drilling plan. As I write, the Trump administration is moving aggressively to open the coastal plain—which scientists consider the “biological heart” of the refuge and Gwich’in call “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins”—to fossil fuel extraction. Meanwhile, environmental and Indigenous activists are fighting to keep oil drills out of the Arctic. 

With the refuge under greater threat than ever before, this history has a new urgency and relevance for our own time. The stories I tell in this book do not offer a blueprint, an exact model to follow today—it’s hard to imagine someone loading up a car with slide projectors—but they demonstrate how visual images along with testimony from people in frontline communities can help mobilize and organize at the grassroots. They show how respectful relationships and alliances can be built between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. They reveal how this supposedly remote place is connected ecologically to places across the continent and around the world. In a time of escalating climate change, species extinction, and threats to Indigenous lands and cultures, they indicate the urgency of struggling, before it is too late, before the drilling starts, to defend the Arctic Refuge.

With the refuge under greater threat than ever before, this history has a new urgency and relevance for our own time.

Viewed from a distance, we might consider this history as inevitable, fated to happen in the way that it did. Viewed from the trenches, though, this is a history of contingency, a story of things that could have turned out differently. It is a history forged not only in the hard marble hallways of Capitol Hill or recorded in the pages of the New York Timesbut a history made by a rambling activist, Gwich’in spokespeople, and local organizers, a history enacted in lecture halls, church basements, and public libraries.

This is a story of the grassroots taking on Goliath, of a slide show galvanizing the citizenry, of unlikely cross-cultural alliances forming across vast distances. It is a history written during an urgent time, infused with hope that things might still turn out differently. 

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University.