Bart Koehler

Grassroots Power!

Recorded: July 17, 2013

Bart Koehler is a wilderness conservation expert and served as the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) for two terms. He has been involved in saving large tracts of wilderness in many states. Bart has been credited by SEACC for saving more than 8 million acres across the United States. In this video, Bart shares his knowledge about Alaska wilderness and the importance of grassroots campaigns.

Bart Koehler is a respected and award-winning wilderness conservation leader in the United States. Over the past 40 years, his self-described greatest achievements have been those helping bedrock grassroots groups succeed in securing permanent protections for over 8 million acres of public land.

Bart has led national, statewide, regional and local conservation groups to success, driven by a lot of passion and music. In his long career he has played a leading role in the lasting protection of more than 8 million acres of wild places including recent successes in Nevada, Montana, Virginia, New Hampshire, Vermont, South Dakota, Puerto Rico, and Oregon. He started his career at The Wilderness Society then co-created Earth First! singing his songs and backing up Dave Foreman’s stump speeches on guitar. His stage name was “Johnny Sagebrush,” which was a saloon-door opener for his work on the Wyoming Wilderness Act in the early 1980s.

Bart Koehler was twice the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. He helped enact the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990, protecting more than 1.4 million acres of prime Tongass wildlands. He is now the coordinator of the American Wilderness Project, a grassroots effort sponsored by the Sustainable Markets Foundation.

Bart’s love of wilderness grew from his beginnings in the Adirondack mountains.  He has a B.A. in Geography from the State University of New York at Albany, and an M.S. in Natural Resources Management and Planning from the University of Wyoming.

Bart is an editor of the 40th Anniversary edition of the Wilderness Act Handbook and the “Stand By Your Land” grassroots handbook. He still publishes his music and has a songbook of conservation tunes, out of print, but still popular.

Bart Koehler:    Every wilderness area that’s ever been protected has a story and every story starts with people who care.

Bart Koehler: Southeast Alaska, there was much fewer people, only 70,000 people scattered throughout this area that’s probably as big as Florida.  It’s as big in size as West Virginia but it’s more shaped like a panhandle like Florida is.  Jimmy Carter was in his last few days of office in December of 1980. When the law passed, the Alaska Lands Act, Ted Stevens who’s not a big fan of conservation by any means but was getting pressured to come up with some agreement on this legislation.  He came up with a wonderful way for him and the timber industry to keep making the big dollars and still clear cut the ever living heck out of Southeast Alaska.  What he did in exchange for living with all of the other wilderness protections– the national parks, the national wildlife refuges all across Alaska– was he insisted on a special program to be enacted for the Tongass National Forest.  And what that did was guarantee a minimum of 40 million dollars a year dedicated for road building, in order to hit a hard timber target, not a flexible one, a hard timber target of 450 million board feet a year.  And so you had this impossible, you know the lack of a better term, a mandated rape of Southeast Alaska being dictated by this enormously historic landmark conservation legislation known as the Alaska Lands Act. We could point to the members of Congress that the majority of the communities of Southeast Alaska supported change, supported getting rid of that mandated timber cut, getting rid of that amazing giveaway of timber and taxpayers subsidies and protecting key watersheds that were a million dollar, basically what we call million dollar salmon streams throughout Southeast Alaska that were not protected by the 1980 law.  The million dollar watershed name came from the fact that year in and year out those fisheries produced over a million dollars worth of salmon without a single dollar of taxpayer money being spent to produce that salmon.  Year in and year out, that’s what a healthy watershed is all about.

There’s a phrase being used now that’s so appropriate called “salmon in the trees.”  There’s actually a book by Amy Gulick.  And it’s basically that when the salmon come in and then they die, all the nutrients from the salmon end up – the trees end up getting stronger because of it.  And then the trees cool down the streams so the salmon can spawn in a healthy way.  If all those trees were cut down and you had no stream buffers with 200 foot spruce or hemlock trees standing next door, you’d have die out, because there was no buffer, the streams would heat up, there’d also be a lot of sedimentation from road building and other things. It would just be a real mess.  It’s an amazing system and I don’t know if we’ll ever learn everything how it’s all interconnected, but you know that guy, that old, crazy guy named John Muir was right when he said everything is hitched to everything else when you start picking apart the universe.

Anyway, people in Southeast Alaska understood the value of these watersheds, so they were supporting their protection.  When it came down to it, it was the grassroots people in these small communities that stood up to Ted Stevens [AK senator 1968-2009] and stood up to Frank Murkowski [AK governor 2002-2006] and stood up to Don Young [AK Congressman 1973-present (2013)].

The people in the field like myself were the lucky ones because we got to work to protect wild places that were very special and got to work with very special people to protect wild places.  And it was not us who were the important figures in the whole effort leading to Congress passing laws, it was really the people on the ground, the grassroots, bedrock citizens who used democracy, put it to work, stayed with the fight day in and day out, no matter how hard it was and eventually, you know, got to the goal line and saw their laws passed.  And when you see a new…an area protected, and finally see it on the map, it can bring tears to your eyes.