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Local Youths Tell Visiting Environmental Leader About Their Air-quality Activism

Tim Ellis/KUAC

Longtime environmental activist Brock Evans came to Fairbanks last week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Nearly 110 million acres of land in the United States, including 55 million in Alaska, have been withdrawn from development under the law. Evans also is promoting his latest campaign, which calls for America’s youth to assume leadership of the green movement. Evans learned that local youths are already tackling one of the Fairbanks area’s most pressing environmental issues.

Brock Evans has been at the vanguardof America’s modern environmental movement since before the Wilderness Act became law. He’s fought in many of its major battles while holding top positions with Audubon and Sierra Club, including ensuring an environmentally-safe design for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Evans talked about the history of the movement on Thursday with members of West Valley High School’s Environmental Club as he pointed to areas on a map that’ve been designated wilderness since the law was passed in 1964.

“It was not easy,” he said. “Every one of those areas marked in pink or green or yellow down there, they’re there only because some one person or persons, Americans, loved it enough to stand up and fight for it when the time came. That’s why we have this legacy.”

But Evans told the students that he, like a lot of environmental leaders, are getting on in years – he’s pushing 77 now. He says that’s why he’s advocating for youth to prepare to assume leadership of the environmental movement.

“It’s your turn,” Evans said. “It’s your generation’s turn to stand up for these things if you care about them.”

That’s the theme of his latest book, titled “Fight and Win: Brock Evans’s Strategies for the New Eco-Warrior.” It recounts lessons learned over the years, and gives strategies to help youths prevail over the environmental challenges they’ll have to deal with in the 21st century.

So Evans glad to hear some of the youths in the classroom talk about how they mobilized fellow students at both West Valley and Lathrop and make their voices heard about Fairbanks’s air-quality problems.

“This is great!” he said. “I’m loving being here at the environmental club at the high school and learning you guys are already taking action. ’Cause that’s what it takes.”

Seniors Olyvya Veazey and Rory O’Donoghue said the club launched a campaign last fall to get students to advocate for measures to reduce air pollution. That included showing up and talking about theirair-quality concerns during a Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly meeting in mid-January and a state Department of Environmental Conservation hearing on the issue a week later.

“About five or six of us volunteered to speak,” O’Donoghue said. “And then we had about 20 other students, not necessarily all even in the club but just to come with us and hold signs and stuff.”

That presented Evans with a learning opportunity.

“That’s why the power of votes, when it’s mustered like you did – getting them down in person and telling your personal stories – that’s the best weapon we have to do these things,” he said. “And it may not have had much of an impact the first time you did it. But you have to keep doing, over and over and over again, and finally it gets though.”

Veazey said after the talk that the students had mapped out a strategy to ensure their message got through during the meetings.

“We sort of divided and conquered,” she said, “and split up each of the points that we wanted to talk about and then assigned those to different people to bring up in the meeting so it sort of gave our group a singular direction.”

O’Donoghue says it wasn’t hard to get students involved, because they already were concerned about the issue. He says they just needed some help on channeling that energy.

“A lot of people showed up and wanted to support,” he said. “Even those who hadn’t been in our club this year.”

Veazey says the seniors inspired students in lower grade levels to get involved. She says the experience taught her and the other students a lot about the process – knowledge that she intends to build on in the years ahead.

“I think it was really important that we have this experience before we all go off to college and sort of understand how the process works,” she said. “And understand the best ways to create change, and how to go about creating change.

Veazey says the air-quality activism demonstrates youths’ concern about the environment. And that it shows they’re ready to take charge when the torch is passed to their generation.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.