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for people who care about the West

Alaska ho!

 

Here at High Country News, we're even more charged up than usual: This issue has our first cover story exploring the rough terrain of Alaska's environmental politics.

The only other cover story we've devoted to Alaska analyzed Bering Sea crab fishing, in July 2009. You might wonder why a 41-year-old news operation focused on the American West has waited so long to deal with Alaska. After all, the nation's largest state shares essential characteristics with the parts of the West we typically focus on: Vast amounts of public land, relatively wild landscapes and ecosystems, charismatic wildlife -- and noisy, polarized environmental politics.

But HCN remains a small nonprofit operation, still evolving from our original focus on the Interior West. Over the years, we've expanded to the Pacific Northwest, then to California, occasionally to the High Plains and Canada and Mexico. Recently, we even ran a cover story set in Oklahoma, examining how that state's senators wield power over the West. Financial support from our readers and donors has now made it possible for HCN to make occasional forays into Alaska.

We're pleased to have recruited two talented writers to craft this cover package. Tracy Ross, a 2009 National Magazine Award winner, has traveled as far as Iran and Ecuador for the likes of Outside, Women's Sports Illustrated and Backpacker. Ross examines Alaska's concept of "abundance management" -- a two-edged term, referring both to the apparent abundance of game and to the large numbers of predators that prey on that game.

Alaskans have argued for decades over how to manage wildlife, and national environmental and animal-rights groups have often weighed in. When Sarah Palin was governor, from 2007 to 2009, she pushed hard to reduce the number of wolves and bears, aligning with hard-line hunting groups. But as Ross points out in her story, Alaska's aggressive predator killing began long before Palin entered politics.

Craig Medred, a longtime columnist for the Anchorage Daily News who now works for AlaskaDispatch.com, contributes an essay on the ironies of "abundance management." Alaska, he says, is actually a place of scarcity, and will never have an overall abundance of any wildlife species.

Of course, wildlife management battles also flare up elsewhere in the West; on page 3, HCN managing editor Jodi Peterson reports on some recent developments.

Year by year around the West, we're learning more about the complications of ecosystem management. The lessons acquired in Alaska can help to inform wildlife management everywhere else. But even the clearest scientific evidence is still subject to the power of political systems. That is one complication that never seems to go away.