Eugene Weekly : News : 3.13.08

Local Kids Make Good
UO grads return to combine business with pleasure at PIELC

The UO School of Law’s annual environmental conference brings speakers from all over the world to Eugene to talk about grim environmental problems. But in between discussing dire ecological issues and trying to save the world, attendees also loosen their ties and socialize.

Gabe Scott and Sarah Heaton at PIELC. Photo: James Johnston

Lawyers, agency wonks and activists alike took time for lunch, a drink, or even a little (sometimes awkward) dancing at the WOW Hall Saturday night to the tunes of enviro-songsters Casey Neil and Dana Lyons.

Gabe Scott and Sarah Heaton, both former UO students, came to PIELC to present on their work and also to hang out a little bit. Scott, who studied rhetoric and communication while at the UO, now works to protect the wild places of Alaska as a field representative for the Cascadia Wildlands Project. Scott said he came to the conference “to network with people because it’s lonely in Alaska.”

He said PIELC is one of the few times he gets to interact with environmental lawyers and other activists. Working where he does in Cordova, Alaska, a city with fewer than 3,000 people located within the Chugach National Forest, “you don’t run into them on the ground.”

At his presentation, showing photos of “Alaska’s Lost Coast and Copper River Country,” and offering a taste of the Alaskan salmon he had brought with him, Scott discussed logging so prevalent he said it’s called “the clearcut you can see from space.” He said, “It’s actually illegal to manage the lands for any reason other than a quick buck.”

In addition to images of logging, he showed photos of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which he said has “a spill every month,” including the 2001 Bullet Hole Spill — named for the bullet shot by a drunk man that caused a 285,000 gallon leak of crude oil.

Environmental damages affect not only Alaska’s wild things, but the people who depend on the land and animals for food, Scott said. “Subsistence in Alaska has a different meaning than it does in other places.”

One of those other places is hot and muggy Atlanta, Ga., where UO Planning, Public Policy and Management grad Sarah Heaton now makes her home working for the Centers for Disease Control. She came to the conference “because it’s the most established environmental law conference in the world, and for the opportunity to come back to Eugene.” Despite her current Southern home, she is also working on Alaskan issues.

Heaton is one of the many former activists gone mainstream at the law conference. Once arrested for trying to save Eugene’s downtown trees, she now works to create change from a policy perspective. She facilitated the panel “Human Health Assessment in NEPA: Duty, Vision and Collaboration” which featured Dinah Bear, former general counsel for the Council on Environmental Quality; Aaron Wernham, an Alaska-based medical doctor; and Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of the Inupiat Tribal Council.

The panel addressed efforts by groups from First Nations communities to federal agencies to strengthen the human health factor in the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA compliance means all federal agencies must incorporate environmental considerations in their planning and decision-making process.

Discussion at the panel focused mainly on the ways oil and gas development have affected the native peoples of Alaska. According to Ahtuangaruak, in 1988, one person in her village used an inhaler for asthma; in 1991, the number had risen to 35; and by 2000, the number was at 75 and rising due to the health impacts of energy exploration and development.

“There’s an assumption that if something is in compliance with the Clean Air Act, it won’t affect human health,” said Heaton. She said her goal in coming to PIELC, aside from revisiting her old UO hangouts, was to “educate on the impacts that land use and development have on human health.”