The rise of Lisa Murkowski

Alaska’s pragmatic senator wants to reshape America’s energy policy.

On election night 2014, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was mingling with a crowd of Republican supporters at Anchorage’s Hotel Captain Cook when results began pouring in. The 9,000-square-foot ballroom was packed with people and balloons, and as Republican wins were reported from North Carolina, Montana and Colorado, excitement began to build. Before Alaska’s voting booths even closed, the trend was clear: Republicans were taking back the United States Congress.

Surely, elsewhere in the country other GOP politicians were equally thrilled that night, but none expressed themselves as exuberantly as Murkowski. Around midnight, the senior senator picked up a chair from a small stage and brandished it over her head. Her triumphant howl rose above the noise of the crowd: “I am the chairmaaaaaan!”

 

Murkowski herself wasn’t facing re-election. But the Republican sweep nonetheless gave her the power she’d been seeking for over a decade: chairmanship of the prestigious Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. No other seat in the Senate holds so much influence over how and where energy is developed, and no other state has as great a stake in the matter: 61 percent of Alaska is federally owned, and 90 percent of its revenue comes from the oil industry.

For most Alaskans, the energy chairmanship would be sufficient. But Lisa, as nearly everyone in the state calls her, had also strategically positioned herself to lead one of the most important subcommittees in resource development: the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. This second chairmanship controls the spending of energy-policy heavyweights like the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Environmental Protection Agency, giving Murkowski unparalleled leverage over officials who might thwart energy development — and making her among the most influential people in Washington when it comes to the economies and environments of the American West.

Lisa Murkowski celebrates as the Republicans pull ahead in the 2014 elections.
Robert Hallinen/Alaska Dispatch News

Murkowski is a steadfast supporter of the oil industry. She wants to reduce restrictions on development, ramp up production and open more public lands to drilling. Yet she’s also a moderate Republican who was among the first in her party to acknowledge that climate change is a threat. Her voting record is among the most bipartisan in Congress, and her ability to broker deals is a source of both admiration and fear. “In the context of other Alaska members of Congress I’ve dealt with in the past 15 or 20 years, she’s the most formidable,” says Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program. “She’s smart, she’s serious, and she’s very professional.”

She may be all those things — but first and foremost, Murkowski is an Alaskan. “Anything bad for Alaska is a deal-breaker for me,” she recently wrote to High Country News. As the first woman from her state and the first person born there to serve in Congress, Murkowski’s willingness to compromise may be trumped only by the fierce protectiveness she feels toward her home turf. Cross Alaska — as President Barack Obama has done by limiting oil and gas development there — and you cross Murkowski. And especially with her new gavels, Lisa Murkowski is not someone you want to cross.

“She’s always been a tough lady,” says Oliver Leavitt, an Iñupiat leader and family friend. “But now she’s a tough lady with a big stick.”

 

Lisa Ann Murkowski was born in Ketchikan in 1957, the second of six children. Her father, Frank, was in banking, and it became a family joke that as soon as his wife, Nancy, got settled enough to put up new wallpaper, they’d move again. By 1962, when Lisa was in kindergarten, the Murkowskis had moved up the coast to Wrangell, then known as the timber capital of Alaska.

Like most Southeast Alaska towns, Wrangell is accessible only by water or air, a thumbprint of civilization surrounded by the vast green archipelago of the Tongass National Forest. Rainfall in the Tongass can exceed 150 inches a year, and more often than not, the rocky beaches and narrow ocean passages are shrouded in clouds. Moss blankets everything.

Though some of the biggest trees in the world grow here, the timber industry long ignored Southeast Alaska. Logs were too far from market, and often too soggy, to be profitable. But just before the Murkowskis arrived, the federal government began subsidizing huge logging contracts, transforming sleepy fishing villages into international hubs of commerce. Two sawmills sprang up
in Wrangell, each running two shifts a day. From the Murkowskis’ new home, the family could watch tugboats piled with logs chugging up and down the coast.

Frank had a 19-foot motorboat, the Emerald, and often took Lisa and her siblings into the maze of islands around Wrangell to fish for salmon or picnic on remote beaches. As the 1960s passed, the view from the Emerald changed. Swaths of old-growth rainforest were replaced by muddy, stump-strewn clear-cuts. Environmental protection was almost nil; logging companies drove their bulldozers right up the channels of salmon-producing streams.

Yet from the Murkowskis’ perspective, Southeast Alaska was thriving. Lawmakers and international businessmen visited Wrangell frequently, and as bank manager — an important position in a frontier town — Frank was invited to meet every luminary passing through. He and Nancy would join Sen. Ted Stevens for lunch with fewer than a dozen others.

It was such a tantalizing glimpse into political life that, in 1970, Frank ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. To help get out the vote, 13-year-old Lisa spent hours in a makeshift post office in the basement, licking stamps and stuffing envelopes. It was her first political experience, and she was hooked.

But Frank lost, and the family moved to Fairbanks. There, Lisa again witnessed the transformation that resource development can bring to a struggling rural economy. Not long after the Murkowskis rolled into town, the first shipment of North Slope crude began flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Tens of thousands of pipeline workers flooded the town; in three years, the number of businesses almost doubled.

The Murkowskis absorbed some of that wealth. Their home sat on five acres and featured a heated swimming pool, tennis courts, a stable and an airplane float. The family passed their time flying bush planes, skiing and hunting with the likes of Ted Stevens and his family — the Alaskan equivalent of royalty. Lisa, by now a tall, athletic teenager, particularly loved horseback riding, and was unfazed by shoveling out a winter’s worth of frozen manure each spring.

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, at the 2013 release of the energy blueprint titled Energy 20/20: A Vision for America’s Energy Future in 2013.

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images
  • Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski and his daughter, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, at a 2003 ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., marking the renewal of rights-of-way for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

    CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
  • Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski poses with fellow Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who later died in a plane crash, and The Hulk. The senators shared a fondness for the Marvel Comics character, who explodes in size and smashes anything in his way when angry.

    Courtesy Murkowski Office
  • A young Lisa in 1983 with mentor Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, for whom she worked as an intern.

    Courtesy Murkowski office

In 1980, Frank was finally elected to Congress, beginning a 22-year career in the Senate. That same year, Lisa graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in economics. Now retired, Frank and Nancy spend their summers in Wrangell, in a modest log cabin wedged between the industrial harbor and the protected waters of the Inside Passage, not far from Lisa’s childhood home. Local art decorates the walls. On the sunny May morning that I stop by, a bag of organic fertilizer leans against the porch.

Frank offers me coffee and sits down at the table, while Nancy relaxes on the couch with her feet up, reading the news on a phone in a jeweled case. It soon becomes clear that Mrs. Murkowski is a political force to be reckoned with: When Frank fumbles a reference to a mining operation his daughter opposes, Nancy jumps in with the latest news and legislation. “In our family, all we talk about around the dinner table is politics,” she says. “All our children — but Lisa mainly — were raised on politics.”

In 1985, after earning a law degree from Oregon’s Willamette University, Lisa returned to Alaska, working first in the district attorney’s office and later in private practice. But the Alaska of her childhood was changing. From Anchorage’s Government Hill district, Murkowski watched as the resource economies that had defined Alaska since statehood began to crack. In the Tongass, a combination of market forces, federal regulation and environmental pressure devastated the timber industry. Sawmills closed their doors, and unemployment shot up to around 35 percent. Murkowski — now married with two small boys of her own — watched in dismay as families she’d grown up with lost their jobs and moved away.

On the other end of the state, the Alaska pipeline began its long, steady decline. The oil fields at Prudhoe Bay had peaked, and the federal government was slow to offer leases in its Arctic holdings. Amid this turmoil, in 1999, Lisa Murkowski decided to run for the Alaska House of Representatives.

From the beginning, she bucked the system. Frank was a classic conservative, fighting taxes to catalyze the free market. Lisa increased the state tax on liquor to offset the costs of alcohol abuse and supported reproductive rights, sponsoring legislation that required insurance companies to cover contraception. She volunteered for several finance committees, familiarizing herself with the state’s complicated budget process and quietly building a reputation as a politician who knows the issues. “She wakes up every morning and thinks about three things,” says Kara Moriarty, CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and a family friend. “Policy, policy and policy.”

In 2002, Murkowski was still wrangling with the intricacies of state fiscal policy when her father announced he was ending his last Senate term two years early to run for governor. All he had to do was name his successor.

The list of possibilities was long, and Frank Murkowski remembers putting their names into a spreadsheet to compare qualifications: law degree, legislative experience, personal background. Among the candidates were Sarah Palin — then a rising political star — Ted Stevens’ son, Ben, and Frank’s own daughter. Frank wasn’t serious about Lisa at first, but as he put together the spreadsheet, she started to rise to the top.

Lisa couldn’t believe it. But after taking a few days to consider, she accepted the nomination.

“And then that — what’s the word?” Frank calls to Nancy, who’s still on the couch.

“Nepotism,” Nancy says, without looking up from her phone.

“Nepotism,” Frank repeats. “I learned how to spell nepotism real quick.” (Bumper stickers of the day read, “Lisa, who’s your daddy?”)

But the shadow of nepotism no longer hangs over Murkowski’s career. “She’s her own person,” Nancy says.

“She’s a what?!” Frank asks, aghast.

“I said, she’s her own person. She makes up her own mind.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Frank says, relieved, then adds, “I’ve shot a lotta ducks, so my right ear doesn’t hear as well as the left. Lisa, by the way, is an excellent shot.”

 

A brown bear in the coastal plain area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that’s temporarily protected from drilling.
Steven J. Kazlowski/GHG/Aurora Photos

Ted Stevens once said that Lisa Murkowski was “a hell of a lot better senator than her dad ever was,” and many D.C. insiders who have worked with both agree. “I think that Gov. Murkowski was a good bit louder and a bit more impetuous than (Lisa),” says McKie Campbell, Lisa’s former staff director. “Because she is somewhat quieter and more reflective, people often mistake that for a lack of resolve.”

During her early years in the Senate, Murkowski kept a low profile; a Newsweek article dismissed her political style as “unglamorous” and referred to her as “the other woman from Alaska.” But while Palin worked the cameras, Murkowski worked the backrooms. She volunteered for the committees with the most influence on Alaskan issues — Indian Affairs, Appropriations, Energy and Natural Resources — and built the relationships necessary to further Alaska’s pro-development ambitions on the national stage. Colleagues describe her as unfailingly polite and personable, with a genuine desire to get things done.

Yet Murkowski’s attempts to revive logging in the Tongass and expand Arctic drilling either died in Congress or got caught up in endless litigation and roadblocks, and her disregard for the pillars of conservatism riled some Republicans. By 2010, the financial market had collapsed, Obama was president, and Palin had ousted Frank from the Alaska Governor’s Mansion, the harbinger of a wave of Tea Partying in the state. Murkowski, on the other hand, was openly pro-choice and supported gay rights. She even collaborated with Democrats on a public-lands bill that created 2 million acres of wilderness and 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers.

When she finally did catch the media’s attention, it was for the wrong reason. Lisa Murkowski — an incumbent Republican senator with a famous last name from a strongly Republican state — lost the 2010 primary to a Tea Party candidate named Joe Miller who believed “compromise is destroying the nation.”

Murkowski was devastated. She conceded the primary, and it looked like she’d throw in the towel altogether. “In many ways, she thought how good it would be to be back in Alaska on the sidelines of a soccer game and just be known as Nick or Matt’s mom,” Campbell remembers. But back in Alaska, supporters kept calling her back — a waiter at a restaurant in Anchorage, acquaintances she’d run into at the airport. She contemplated a write-in campaign, but the notion seemed preposterous: No one had won by write-in since Strom Thurmond in 1954, and it seemed unlikely that anyone with a last name as difficult as “Murkowski” would stand a chance.

But support kept building. One evening in mid-September, Murkowski found herself at the dinner table at her cousin Anne Gore’s house in Anchorage, hashing out her options long after the salmon was eaten and the dishes cleared. “We always have very loud dinner table discussions in this family,” says Murkowski’s older sister, Carol Sturgulewski, who was there. “We look at issues 18 different ways. It’s OK to have a difference of opinion, because if she doesn’t hear it from me, she’s gonna hear it from the guy sitting next to her on the Senate floor. So we were doing what we always do, going around the table, around and around and around.”

Eventually, Gore took a quarter out of her wallet and flipped it. Heads, Murkowski would run. Tails, she wouldn’t. No one could look. Finally, Sturgulewski pried open Gore’s fingers, looked down and smiled: Heads.

Murkowski swiftly put together a $1.7 million budget and a staff of 20. Ted Stevens had died in a plane crash just weeks before, and his staffers rallied to her side. Her chief political strategist was Cathy Allen, who generally works for Democrats, and many Democratic voters, fearful of what would happen if Joe Miller won the election, backed her. A super PAC of Alaska Native Corporations formed and donated more than a million dollars to Murkowski’s write-in. Oil companies chipped in a quarter-million.

On Sept. 17, wearing a royal blue blazer, her chestnut hair perfectly coifed, she stepped in front of a podium plastered with the words “Let’s Make History” at the Dena’ina Center in downtown Anchorage. As chants of “Run, Lisa, Run!” died down, someone in the audience yelled, “Love you, Lisa!”

“I love you,” she replied, grinning incredulously. Her usual stiffness and poise seemed to melt away. In the heartfelt 25-minute speech that followed, she described the overwhelming support that prompted her decision, took a few digs at the Tea Party, and led the crowd in an exercise spelling her last name: M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I! The response was uproarious.

Murkowski finished by quoting the late Sen. Stevens. “The hell with politics,” she cried. “Let’s do what’s right for Alaska. Let’s win!”

Murkowski won. By 13,000 votes.

 

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks during a 2010 Senate Republican news conference on the need for a bipartisan energy bill.
Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty Image

The 2010 victory marked a turning point in Murkowski’s political career. Though she ran as a Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told her she no longer had the support of the Senate’s GOP leadership, and the Alaska Republican Party refused to acknowledge her. In some ways, it was the best thing that could have happened: No longer shackled to her party, Murkowski had even greater freedom to forge her own path.

The timing, however, couldn’t have been worse: Democrats had lost their filibuster-proof majority, and the next four years marked one of the worst stalemates in congressional history. Democrats refused to pass energy bills, while Republicans, led by Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, blocked one wilderness bill after another. The 112th Congress became notorious as the first since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 to not designate a single acre of new wilderness.

By the time Republicans swept the 2014 election, hundreds of bills had piled up, and lawmakers on both sides were ready for action. Hastings was about to retire, though not without first seeing some of his pet measures passed, and Democrats, about to lose their majority, had impetus to dust off long-stalled legislation. As one Republican negotiator told the Brookings Institution, Murkowski saw the opportunity and ran with it.

While the media and her fellow senators were distracted by the threat of a government shutdown, Murkowski helped negotiate a massive back-door compromise, wrapping dozens of development and land-protection bills into a 169-page package. It created 250,000 acres of Western wilderness and 140 miles of wild and scenic rivers, and halted mineral development on hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands. It also streamlined permits for grazing, oil and gas development and opened an additional 110,000 acres to logging and mining.

Though it was the biggest lands deal Congress had passed in years, it “was not one of those heralded mega-deals announced by proud lawmakers at a triumphant press conference,” writes Jill Lawrence for Brookings’ Center for Effective Public Management. Instead, it was a “profile in negotiation,” a “collection of mini-deals affecting people and places in 36 states in myriad different ways.”

Murkowski’s personal triumph in the package was a bill known as Sealaska, which transferred 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to an Alaska Native corporation (which was owed the land), to be logged without lawsuits or federal environmental regulations. Tim Bristol, then-director of Trout Unlimited’s Alaska program, says that while he and other environmentalists were initially opposed, the final bill was swallowable. In addition to the land transfer, Murkowski agreed to put 152,000 acres of old growth into conservation. “The original bill and what ended up passing were quite a bit different,” Bristol says. “There were a few places where common sense took hold.”

The entire deal was attached to a must-pass defense bill and signed into law on Dec. 19, 2014. It was by far the biggest thing Murkowski had negotiated in her 12 years in the Senate. But by then, she had won her twin gavels, and the public-lands compromise was mere practice for what was to come.

 

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline brought an employment and energy boom to Alaska — for a while.
Christian Heeb/Aurora Photos

This January, as the 114th Congress got underway, Murkowski faced a dilemma. Her rise to power coincided with a fiscal crisis in Alaska, where a precipitous drop in oil prices — combined with low production — led the state to slash funding for education, transportation and other sectors. Murkowski in part blames the federal government, and she’s angry. Angrier than she’s ever been.

Yet to pass the kind of energy reform that could become her legacy, Murkowski needs her moderate bipartisan roots more than ever. Though the 2014 deal unclogged the glut of public-lands bills that had built up in the congressional pipeline, an equal number of energy bills are still languishing — like the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill, a measure about as uncontroversial as any in Washington. It would improve energy efficiency without imposing federal mandates, but because it got caught up in the (unrelated) fight over Keystone XL, the bill has been unsuccessfully introduced in each Congress since 2011.

If anyone can pass Shaheen-Portman and the dozens of other measures that have fallen victim to partisan politics, Murkowski believes it’s her. The last time Congress comprehensively updated America’s energy policy, in 2007, the landscape looked entirely different than it does today: It was twice as expensive to put solar panels on a roof, and the U.S. only produced about 5 million barrels of crude oil a day, compared to around 9.5 million now. “The world has changed,” Murkowski told Brookings last year. “The energy world has changed. And what hasn’t changed are many of the policies.”

In the West, this disconnect means — among many things — that the grid isn’t prepared to accept all the renewable power that could come online, and that innovative utilities wanting to reduce the need for new power plants by sharing electricity are stymied by outdated technology or policies. So this January, Murkowski set out to do what previous chairs have been unwilling or unable to: revamp America’s energy policy. She kicked off her chairmanship in Energy and Natural Resources by gathering input from environmental groups, oil companies and everyone in between on what they consider America’s most pressing energy needs, then gave committee members a month to introduce bills. She held vigorous debates on everything that flooded in, and weeded out measures that members couldn’t agree on.

In the end, she was left with a 357-page package of bipartisan energy bills. She unveiled it in July, passed it through committee in September, and hopes to have it on the president’s desk before long. J. Bennett Johnston, a conservative Louisiana Democrat and energy-policy insider, says the package offers the best opportunity in years to update America’s energy laws. “It’s not very controversial,” he says. “It’s not world-shaking. But it’s got a lot of things in it they’ve been trying to pass for a long time, and I think it’s got a decent chance.”

As with the 2014 public-lands deal, many of the measures in Murkowski’s energy package seem inconsequential. But taken as a whole, the thrust is clear: The senator wants to increase every source of energy — wind, solar, geothermal, oil, natural gas, coal, marine hydrokinesis, biomass, nuclear and others — largely by removing federal restrictions that hinder their development. Her energy spokesman, Robert Dillon, says the senator would never do so in a way that compromises environmental safeguards, but at least 11 major environmental groups have come out against Murkowski’s package. A section that deals with expanding hydropower is particularly grating, an “industry wish list” that will roll back environmental protections for rivers and fish, says American Rivers’ John Seebach. Another section will speed up exports of natural gas, further tying the economy to fossil fuels “at a time when we should be transitioning away from their use,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Nonetheless, the package goes a long way toward updating the West’s electric grid and making room for more renewables. It sets up a noncompetitive leasing program for geothermal energy on public lands, improves efficiency standards, and permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s not perfect, but it moves the ball forward.

It also provides a glimpse of what Alaska’s senior senator can do when she’s at her best. But Murkowski’s nine months as chairman offer a look at another side of her, too.

 

After voting in the 2010 election in which she was a write-in candidate, Lisa Murkowski walks with her husband, Verne Martell, and sons Nick and Matt Martell in Girdwood, Alaska.
John Moore/Getty Images

On the days when Ted Stevens felt most “pumped up” to defend the great state of Alaska, he showed up for work wearing a tie featuring The Hulk, the Marvel Comics character who explodes in size and smashes anything in his way when angry.

Murkowksi inherited Stevens’ fondness for The Hulk; she keeps a figurine in her D.C. office, and when she’s ready for battle, drapes a scarf printed with the green-hued hero over her shoulders. But while Stevens pounded his fist and raised his voice when he felt the feds were slighting Alaska, Murkowski stays unnervingly calm, even venomous. “Channeling my inner #Hulk while meeting with the press,” she once posted on her Instagram account.

Murkowski has had plenty of reasons to channel her inner Hulk this year. Six months after she passed the Sealaska provision to expedite logging in the Tongass, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down an effort that both Murkowskis had championed since the 1990s: exempting the Tongass from Clinton’s roadless rule. The environmental community cheered the decision as a final blow to old-growth logging in the Tongass, but for Murkowski, it was another sign that the federal government was abandoning its commitment to Alaska’s resource development.

Further proof, she says, lies in the state’s oil production. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, built in the 1970s to transport Arctic oil from Prudhoe Bay, is currently moving 500,000 barrels of oil a day, compared to the 2 million it was designed for, and dropping by 5 percent annually. If Arctic production continues to decline, keeping the pipeline running may not be economically feasible. And with state lands getting tapped out, Murkowski believes the most surefire way to keep Alaska’s economy afloat is for the federal government to let oil companies begin drilling.

Since 2004, Murkowski has introduced eight bills to allow drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area estimated to hold the largest unexplored onshore oil reserves in the United States. None have passed. But when she assumed her chairmanship in January, it offered fresh hope to her allies that she might be able to force the president’s hand.

And then, without warning, Obama crushed those hopes. On the morning of Jan. 25, his administration released a minute-long YouTube video of sweeping vistas, herds of caribou and regal polar bears. The Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain, the president announced, would be managed as wilderness. The longest-running battle of oil versus wildlife was settled, at least for now, in favor of wildlife.

Murkowski’s Hulk was unleashed. “Folks back home woke up Sunday morning to the news that this president effectively declared war on our economic future,” she told the Senate floor that week. “When our economic opportunities as a state, which lie in our natural resources, are denied us … there is no other way to describe it (than) as a war.”

“We are left with no choice,” she added in a later statement, “but to hit back as hard as we can.”

Since then, Murkowski has introduced legislation, separate from her energy package (see sidebar at right), to facilitate offshore drilling in the Arctic, end the ban on crude oil exports and make it easier to transfer federal public lands to state control. She’s convinced the Environmental Protection Agency to exempt Alaska from the 2015 Clean Power Plan and is helping other senators fight for the same in their states. And according to the Center for Responsive Politics, three of the five biggest contributors to her 2016 campaign are oil and gas-related groups.

“I think ‘worried’ would be a more-than-fair classification of how we look at Sen. Murkowski,” says Dan Ritzman, the Sierra Club’s Arctic program director. “She’s always been a loud advocate for drilling and development, and this year she’s found a way to turn up the volume.”

Most significantly, Murkowski has made it clear that if Obama continues to restrict development in the Arctic, she won’t hesitate to use her new power to squeeze the Interior Department’s budget, affecting land management across the West. Already, she’s dismissed the department’s 2016 budget request — which includes extra funds for fighting catastrophic wildfires — as “wishful thinking.”

“I’m seeking to defund the administration’s wilderness grab through the appropriations process,” she explained to HCN in an email.

With an upcoming election in Alaska — her first since nearly losing in 2010 — we may be seeing more of the same as Murkowski fights to preserve her state’s economy and satisfy its conservative voters. When asked about how else she plans to “hit back,” Murkwoski replied: “I have a lot planned on this, but am not ready to share all of it publicly.”

HCN correspondent Krista Langlois lives in Durango, Colorado, and frequently covers Alaska.
@KristaLanglois2

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.