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Q & A with Lenny Kohm

Lynn Lau
Northern News Services

Inuvik (Aug 12/02) - Around Fort McPherson and other Gwich'in communities, they call him Oonjitnatsal niinhjih kwa, or "Little white man who doesn't sleep."

NNSL photo

Lenny Kohm, speaking at the Gwich'in Gathering in Old Crow, Yukon, last month. - Lynn Lau/NNSL photo

It's an apt description for Lenny Kohm, a 62-year-old U.S. activist who has spent 15 years campaigning to protect the Alaskan calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou.

The herd of upwards of 150,000 animals has been used by the Gwich'in for hundreds of years. Each spring, about 50,000 calves are born to the herd, mostly within the "1002" lands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the state's North Slope. The area has been threatened by oil and gas development since the 1970s.

When Kohm learned of the issue in the 1987, he was a freelance photographer visiting the North on assignment. He went home infected with the desire to spread awareness about the wilderness refuge and convince the U.S. government to protect the calving grounds. With the help of a small group of people, he assembled his slide show and began doing presentations for anyone who would listen -- at schools, churches, libraries, even the zoo.

Initially he financed the campaign by passing a donation hat after shows, but after a few years, his reputation grew, and he began tapping into grants from environmental groups and foundations. Many different agencies have contributed to the project, including, in the NWT, the Gwich'in Tribal Council, Gwich'in Renewable Resource Board and Porcupine Caribou Management Board.

Sometimes spending as many as 280 days a year on the road, Kohm repeated his presentation 1,813 times, in 49 states, targeting regions where politicians were in favour of drilling in the refuge.

Over the years, Kohm has been joined by Gwich'in from the NWT, Yukon and Alaska -- about 40 in total -- who have gone on tour with him to tell Americans why caribou are important.

Although the U.S. government still hasn't granted the calving grounds permanent wilderness protection, Kohm's campaign has helped raise political pressure enough to stall plans for oil development, possibly, he hopes, forever.

In November, Kohm decided to pack up his travelling show and "retire." He still works on the caribou issue indirectly from his home in North Carolina, where he's the conservation director for an environmental group called Appalachian Voices.

Here's part of a conversation he had with News/North last week.

News/North: Have you always been an environmentalist?

Lenny Kohm: No. I was always sympathetic, but like everyone else, I didn't think one person could do very much. I have a very different view of that now. One person can do a lot, two people can do twice as much.

A lot of times, I'll talk to groups of young people about advocacy. I say, "If you've got one penny and you put it in the bank Aug. 1, and the next day, you put in two cents and the next day, four cents, by the end of August, you'd have over $21 million in the bank."

In activism, things compound and double like that, and the next thing you know, there's something going on.

N/N: What about the Gwich'in and the Porcupine caribou grabbed your interest for so long?

LK: That's a hard question. Over time, the Gwich'in people ceased being an indigenous people (to me), and just kind of became my friends.

The broader question is, what is it about the Arctic Refuge that just captures people's imagination?

When I went up to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge back in 1987, I'd never been to any place that wild. It just has this appeal and I wasn't immune to it.

And I think as far as the place itself, it just didn't make any sense that you would even take a chance at risking what is there -- a resource that has been there for thousands and thousands years -- for a finite resource we could measure if it's even there at all.

N/N: Many Northern communities seem to be constantly inundated with people and their various projects. How were you received when you first approached the Gwich'in about your idea?

LK: Certainly, I felt some trepidation. When I first got off the airplane in Old Crow, I had three cameras hanging around my neck and I'm sure they all thought, "Here comes another one." A lot of people go through Old Crow -- tourists, people with the government, people who are there "to help." They come for a while and then you never see them again. I was there in 1987, and then I came back and spent the summer in 1988, and I just kept coming back. I got to know people and they weren't just a part of an issue. They became my friends. Now happily, I'm considered pretty much family. Which is a nice thing.

N/N: You started your slide-show presentations after returning from your trip through the refuge and Gwich'in communities in 1987. Did you think you'd be doing it for 15 years?

LK: No. I sort of knew I'd be on the road for as long as it took. I didn't think it was going to take this long.

N/N: The issue has kept coming before the U.S. Congress and support has swayed back and forth between protecting the refuge and drilling in it. There must have been times when you felt pretty discouraged.

LK: Yes, there were many times, but I spoke to so many people over the years, thousands and thousands, and I guess I always knew that ultimately they wouldn't let (drilling) happen. I'd be discouraged for a day or two, and it would just make me more determined.

N/N: What has been the response of your American audience to the tour?

LK: Over the 15-year period, if I had four hands, I could count on my four hands the number of people who really actively were detractors. Most people really responded to it, in that format. The response was beyond anything I imagined.

N/N: When did you make the decision to pack it in?

LK: The beginning of last September, after 15 years of doing it, I was preparing for the next two tours that were going consecutively back to back, and for the first time, I was really dreading it -- dreading being on the road. I'd always enjoyed the work, and working with the Gwich'in people, but it was an issue of doing all that travelling.

Last night, at home I picked vegetables from my garden and ate dinner out of my garden. And I hadn't been able to do that in 15 years because I was never home long enough to have a garden.

N/N: Do you ever wish you hadn't heard about the caribou?

LK: There were difficult times. There were times it wasn't fun and there were times when it was just work, when it was really tiring. But when I look back at it all, I wouldn't change a minute of it.

On balance, it was probably the most rewarding experience I've ever had the privilege to be involved in.