With the recent news that President Jimmy Carter is now in hospice care, I’ve read several retrospectives on the global impact he has had over his long, productive life. As a long-time admirer, I offer my own tribute to Jimmy Carter’s foresightedness, focused on two topics with personal relevance: energy conservation and Alaska.
The importance of energy conservation has been a long-standing concern of Carter’s. A day after his 1977 inauguration as president, amid a shortage of natural gas supplies, he asked Americans to voluntarily turn down their thermostats to 65° during the day and even lower at night. Two weeks later he held a televised fireside chat to discuss energy conservation policies he hoped to put in place during his presidency. He dressed informally for this occasion, and the chat became known as “Jimmy Carter’s sweater speech.”
Under Carter’s presidency, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Solar Energy Research Institute, as a means to enhance the budding solar energy movement. In addition, he had solar collectors installed on the roof of the White House as a demonstration project, long before such collectors were common. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, the collectors were removed.
My attention to energy conservation dates to Carter’s sweater speech. In addition to working on energy issues over the years, I took his recommendations to heart personally. To this day I keep my thermostat in the mid-60s and add extra layers to stay warm. Several times this winter, when temperatures here in Vermont dipped into the minus 20s, I’ve worn three layers.
President Carter’s actions on Alaska lands, however, evoke my highest admiration and gratitude. On December 2, 1980, I experienced one of the highlights of my thirty-five-year career – at a time when I was still a volunteer. On that day, I sat in the East Room of the White House with environmental activists from Alaska and around the country. We were there to witness President Carter signing the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which established millions of acres of pristine Alaskan lands as new national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas.
The Alaska Coalition, which had fostered the network of grassroots activists from all fifty states, had invited me to be part of the celebratory activities. I felt honored when President Carter entered the room, welcomed everyone, and said, “Never before have we seized the opportunity to preserve so much of America’s natural and cultural heritage on so grand a scale.”
At the time of the signing, my career was just getting started. I’d first been introduced to the issue of Alaska national interest lands four years earlier while living in Anchorage. At the time I was volunteering with the Alaska Center for the Environment as one of their five daily coordinators, each of us responsible for operations of the organization one day a week. By then I’d recognized Alaska as my soul place and knew I wanted to pursue an environmental career.
After living in Anchorage for less than two years, however, my then-husband declared he needed to live closer to his family in the Northeast, and we moved to New Hampshire. My grief at leaving Alaska was immense, but I channeled it into galvanizing citizen support in N.H. for the legislation to protect Alaska lands. (I did so under the auspices of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire for which I later worked as policy director.)
The support of N.H. citizens for the Alaska national interest lands grew over the late 1970s and helped deliver the unanimous vote of the state’s congressional delegation for the legislation President Carter signed on December 2, 1980.
And now, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and Jimmy Carter have once again surfaced in the news with a long-simmering proposal to build a road across the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which was established under the 1980 act. Izembek, also a federal wilderness area considered of world importance for migrating birds, is on the westernmost point of the Alaska Peninsula where the Aleutian Islands begin.
Nearly a year ago, Jimmy Carter, at age ninety-seven, filed a legal brief in a court case that threatens the future administration of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Carter considers this law to be perhaps “the most significant domestic achievement of my political life.” He believes the Izembek controversy holds the potential, if not carefully decided, to “negate” the protections inherent in the landmark federal law.
I applaud Jimmy Carter’s longstanding environmental leadership. This important issue, which has implications beyond Alaska especially in western states with considerable public lands, is too complicated to explore in this blogpost. Those who are interested can find more information in the sources listed below.