Even without Palin, Alaska fights federal polar bear protection

The Alaska Legislature is paying for a conference and public relations campaign to persuade Congress to limit the Endangered Species Act.

The Legislative Council is asking public relations firms to bid between now and Jan. 4 on the effort, which lawmakers appropriated $1.5 million to fund. The PR pros are to assemble a panel for an "Alaska Conference on Climate Change," after suggesting how the panel debate should be framed. They'll launch a public relations campaign "based on the conclusions reached by the conference panel," according to the Legislature's request for proposals.

The goal of the project is figuring out how to reverse what the Legislature calls negative economic effects from listings based on climate change, like the designation of the polar bear as a threatened species.

"The (PR firm's) main role will be taking information from the conference and other information gathering efforts and trying how to initiate a grass-roots movement, for lack of a better term. For going to Congress and asking for some reform changes," said Eddie Grasser, a legislative employee who is organizing the PR effort.

Rebecca Noblin, an Anchorage lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, said it looks as if the Legislature is organizing a panel to reach a preordained conclusion. The state instead needs to be tackling the threat of climate change to Alaska, including the ongoing erosion of coastal communities and declines in species important for subsistence, she said. The Endangered Species Act just helps protect what's at risk, she said, and the conference is using it as a "bogeyman."

"The costs in Alaska of allowing climate change to progress unabated will dwarf any possible expenses that could accompany the (Endangered Species Act) listing of species," Noblin said.

The money for the conference and public relations effort was originally appropriated in 2008 by Valdez Republican Rep. John Harris and then-Wasilla Republican Sen. Lyda Green. The idea at the time was to highlight scientific research that went against the prevailing scientific view of the impact of climate change on polar bears. That proved controversial and the conference never happened, but now the Legislative Council is signing off on spending the $1.5 million.

This time is different, said Grasser, who works for Harris, chairman of the Legislative Council. He said Alaska will be working with other states seeking the same changes to the Endangered Species Act. "It's not challenging the idea that maybe we need to do something about climate change but challenging the idea that the (Endangered Species Act) is the tool to use in doing that," he said.

Grasser said one focus will be on whether the federal government should be able to list polar bears as a threatened species based on a computer model when they are "at the highest population level ever."

The Interior secretary under former President George W. Bush, Dirk Kempthorne, listed polar bears as threatened after summer sea ice levels melted to their lowest recorded level. The Interior Department found projected changes in sea ice will result in the loss of two-thirds of the world's current polar bear population by 2050, including all in America.

Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity said the multiple climate models, if anything, underestimate the rate of decline in sea ice. She said studies show Alaska's polar bears in decline with drastic melting of their habitat.

That's a matter of contention, and Gov. Sean Parnell is suing to try to overturn the polar bear listing. The governor welcomes the Legislature's PR effort, his spokeswoman said.

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