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Sierra Magazine
Leader of the Pack

Congressman Don Young has long despised environmentalists, hungered for development, and scorned wilderness. Now he's in a position to do something about it.

by B.J. Bergman

Republicans were still savoring the ambrosia of congressional rule when the House Resources Committee sent for Bruce Babbitt, the Clinton administration's point man on public-lands protection. A former governor and presidential candidate, the erudite interior secretary took his seat, settled his gaze upon the bristly, bearded man at the head of the dais, and signaled his submission. "Mr. Chairman," Babbitt cooed, "I have no doubt about who the alpha wolf is in this room."

Don Young could scarcely have been more pleased. For two decades the burly Alaskan had done his aggressive best to establish dominance over environmentalists. He had made a career in Congress as an attack dog for development interests, fiercely denouncing every effort by "outsiders " to protect his state's sprawling wilderness. Yet conservationists have been equally stubborn, and the aging warrior, frustrated and marginalized, had been flirting with retirement for years.

But what a difference an election day can make. The 1994 GOP congressional sweep rejuvenated Young; when the dust cleared, he found himself in charge of the influential Resources Committee, long a we llspring of forward-looking public-lands legislation. Chairman Young has other plans for the panel. His own vision is reflected in his Rayburn Building office: decked out in classic Early Machismo, it features such homey touches as a giant Kodiak bearskin, a small armory of hunting rifles, and a discarded chunk of the Alaska pipeline. The gentleman from Alaska, who ignored repeated requests from Sierra for an interview, has made it a point to host strategically selected reporters and photographers here since taking the reins of Resources-the better to spread his legend beyond the Beltway, the great state of Alaska, and the widening circle of hapless souls who have provoked his rage.

Rage is a recurring theme in the Don Young saga. There was, for example, the time he waved a knife while haranguing green-leaning New York Congressman Robert Mrazek on the floor of the House. Or the time he angrily brandished a walrus oosik, or penis bone, during testimony by Mollie Beattie, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ("You won't believe this," Representative Gerry Studds told Beattie, "but this is one of his relatively mellow days.") The list goes on. In the course of one difficult re-election campaign, he took out newspaper ads to ask Alaskans to forgive his behavioral lapses. They did. Besides the candidate himself, no one was more relieved than the state's political cartoonists, for whom Young is a wholly renewable source of satiric inspiration.

Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), the man Young displaced as Resources chair, has witnessed much of the Sturm und Drang up close. "Sitting next to this guy for 18 years is like sitting next to Vesuvius," he says. "I'm never quite sure when he's gonna go off, I'm never quite sure if he's gonna pull a knife, I don't know if he's gonna stick it in my leg, or what."

"Don Young," deadpans Maryland Republican Representative Wayne Gilchrest, "does not mind confrontation."

The 62-year -old Young, a perennial underdog since his arrival in Congress in 1973, has only been emboldened by his abrupt rise to the top of the congressional food chain. Soon after November's elections, he howled his outrage at "the high, elite environmental community . . . the self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, intellectual bunch of idiots that don't understand that they're leading this country into environmental disaster."

There was more. The federal government, Young charged, has been "infiltrated by the preservationists. This is a socialist movement. That's all it is." And he barked a warning to tree-hugging fifth-columnist s everywhere: "I'm the one that's in charge now," he bragged. Environmentalists "are going to have to compromise. If not, I'm just going to ram it down their throats." His bill of fare, a Christmas feast for polluters, includes rollbacks of the Endangered Species Act and wetlands protections, new rules to make "property rights" safe from the reach of regulators, auctions of public lands, and that hundred-pound fruitcake of anti-wilderness proposals, oil-and-gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"He says without any hesitation, without any equivocation, without any parenthetical statements, that he is changing the priorities and the role of this committee," says Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), one of Resources' strongest voices for wilderness. "He says tha t at every opportunity. And he also says things about his longevity, how he plans on being here for a long time and continuing to do these kinds of things long into the future. That's the rhetoric. We're waiting for the ocular proof, as they say."

For Miller, though, two decades of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations with the new chairman are proof enough. "He is a very serious threat to the environmental agenda," declares Miller soberly. "A very serious threat."

The 1951 Sutter Union High School yearbook contains a valedictory prediction for Donald Edwin Young, then a pompadoured 18-year-old letterman on the Northern California school's football team, the Huskies. It foretells that "Rabbit" Young-nicknamed for the Lepus-like set of his front teeth-will one day be a Democratic senator. His classmates weren't in the dark about his political leanings. "We put that in just to get his goat," says one fellow Sutter alum.

"He's always been a strong Republican politico," confirms Wayne Gadberry, who met Young when both were undergraduates at Chico State College. He was also "as nice a guy as you'd ever want to meet." Yet the gregarious, competitive future congressman had a taste for verbal combat. "Don had opinions. If he disagreed with you he'd let you know about it."

That youthful contentiousness took root in icy Fort Yukon. Lured by Jack London's The Call of the Wild-the tale of Buck, a pampered dog who goes on to lead a pack of wolves-Young headed north in 1959, Alaska's first year of statehood. But it would be more than a decade before an adversary worthy of the name would furnish him with a political raison d'être in the Alaska House in 1966, and moved up to the state senate in 1970. His northern district was enormous, his constituents few and far between. His tenure was unremarkable.

His departure was not. In 1972 he was tapped by state Republican leaders to challenge Alaska's freshman Democratic congressman, Nick Begich. Young was given no chance against the popular incumbent. Then, with just weeks left in the campaign, a plane carrying Begich and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs disappeared en route from Anchorage to Juneau. Begich, still missing when election day rolled around, won handily anyway. But his body was never recovered , and in March of 1973 Alaskans were asked to choose a new representative from the state's only congressional district. Young, the political lamb spared from sacrifice, eked out a 2,000-vote victory over a last-ditch Democratic replacement even more obscure than himself.

Environmentalists barely noticed. It was a heady time for the movement, which had been on a roll since the first Earth Day just three years before. In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was introduced, and the fledgling congressman voted in favor of passage. But trouble was brewing. Alaska's pro-development "boomers," anxious to capitalize on the huge 1967 oil strike in remote Prudhoe Bay, demanded a trans-Alaskan pipeline through 800 mile s of roadless permafrost; enviros opposed it. Boomers eventually got their pipeline. To allay environmental concerns, however, they had to place it on stilts, which helped push completion back to 1977. Young has never forgiven environmental ists for delays in getting Prudhoe's oil (and oil revenues) flowing.

As the 1970s drew to a close, one of the nation's most significant conservation victories was taking shape: the protection of 104 million acres of wildlands under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Backed by environmental organizations throughout the United States, the measure was the most sweeping wilderness bill in the nation's history. For Young-who holds that Alaska lands are Alaska's business-it was a personal affront. When his colleagues voted to approve the bill, Young condemned the action as "immoral." Then, on the floor of the House of Representatives, he wept.

The next rounds were fought over the 19. 5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Despite its highly speculative nature, Young views oil exploration in the pristine refuge as key to the state's economic future. For Gwich'in natives, however, the future is directly tied to protection of the refuge's 125-mile coastal plain. This stretch of Alaska's North Slope is the springtime calving ground for the 160,000-strong Porcupine caribouherd, on which the Gwich'in depend for subsistence and cultural identity.

With the Gulf War raging in 1991, oil industry allies in Congress launched a major assault on the refuge. It was Young who brought the war home to Alaska. Among the witnesses at a hearing in Anchorage was Sarah James, a delegate from the Gwich'in Steering Committee, an alliance of eight tribal villages. Young "lit into" her, recounts one veteran activist, "in a way that I never imagined an elected official would talk to constituents." The Anchorage Daily News reported that Young "attacked" the soft-spoken James for her opposition to drilling. "You can 't have it both ways," he lectured. "Your snowmobiles are run by gasoline. Your schools are run by the oil revenues that come from Prudhoe Bay."

"He yells and raises his voice and doesn't bother to listen to the answer. He made it very difficult to respond," recalls James, who adds that "respected tribal chiefs " have received similar treatment. "He has no respect for our traditional people or for environmentalists. He only cares about what he wants-he doesn't have that concept of 'listen and learn.' "

Young, who married his Gwich'in wife, Lula, after settling in Alaska, seems to believe he knows best for the Gwich'in, who have lived here for thousands of years. Play or pay, he admonishes. Either work with him to ensure that oil companies consider their needs, or watch helplessly as the calving ground is destroyed by drilling-which, he warns, will proceed with or without their cooperation.

Young is not alone, of course, in his obeisance to Big Oil. There is no escaping the industry's influence in Alaska. While the federal government supplies the greatest share of the state's jobs, the oil industry supplies nearly all of its revenues. Alaskans pay no income or sales taxes. In fact, thanks to the so-called Permanent Fund, a cash reserve fueled by oil proceeds, they receive annual payoffs: $983.90 to every man, woman, and child living in the state last year. Concludes Lenny Kohm, a Sierra Club activist dedicated to defending the Arctic Refuge: "That buys a lot of votes."

Nevertheless, many voters do not share Young's penchant for resource destruction-as they showed in his 1992 re-election bid, which he won with a thin 47 percent plurality. "Alaska is really polarized between people like me who came here to get away from development and people who see Alaska as the last frontier, " observes Jackie Canterbury, an emigrant from Washington State. Canterbury, who serves on the boards of the Tongass Conservation Society and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, calls herself "a mainstream American" whom Young has chosen to ignore. "To me he represents the corporations. He doesn't represent the people. I think he thinks people who care about the land are morally wrong. He sees people like me as communists."

While Young might concede the latter point-he once baited mining-reform advocates by reading aloud from the Communist Manifesto-he insists he is battling to save working people from "no-growth" environmentalists. He favors development, he maintains, because development means jobs. It also means big bucks from corporate PACs: oil-and-gas companies contributed more than $114,000 to his 1994 campaign alone, or nearly one dollar of every eight from all sources combined. But Young is more than a bought-and-paid-for capitalist tool. Timber-related concerns, for example, came up with a modest $19, 000-less than commercial fishing interests, which depend on healthy forest ecosystems-and mining firms gave him barely $10,000. Extraction, for Young, appears to be largely a labor of love. Even by the standards of Alaska-whose former governor, Wally Hickel, uttered the deathless battle cry, "You can't let nature run wild!"-he is unrivaled in both his fervor for development and his contempt for th ose who stand in its way.

"The theme over and over again is anti-environmentalist," says David Finkelstein, a former Sierra Club volunteer now in his fourth term in the Alaska legislature. "It's very, very negative. But not everyone agrees with Don Young."

If Young dislikes Alaskan environmentalists, he loathes the breed found in the nation's capital. "There's 57 different organizations that live around this hill that make a living telling the farmer he's wrong, that make a living telling the guy who's cutting a tree down that he's wrong, that make a living telling everyone that man's occupation on the earth is a cancer on the earth," Young fumed in January. "That's why I get so frustrated with them, because they are the most despicable group I've ever dealt with."

What Young views as the arrogance of environmentalists is embodied in the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which, he complains, lets "idiots" in Washington run roughshod over property owners. Although he helped pass it then, he now claims that supporters had "envisioned trying to protect, you know, pigeons and things like that. We never thought about mussels and ferns and flowers and all these subspecies of squirrels and birds."

Soon after taking the helm of Resources, Young set up a special task force to hold hearings on the act-thereby taking the gavel away from Representative Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), a strong supporter of the act , who chairs the subcommittee that would normally have jurisdiction. For his task force chief Young drafted second-termer Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who presided over a series of staged denunciations of the current law by a hand-picked procession of farmers, ranchers, and other "private-property rights" advocates. Environmentalists were systematically excluded from testifying on behalf of the act; children who did were hooted at. (See "Stacking the Deck for Extinction," Priorities, July/August.)

"In the beginning, the task force looked like, sounded like, acted like, spoke like they wanted to repeal the Endangered Species Act ," says Maryland's Gilchrest, a proponent of tough species-protection who asked to be added to Pombo's panel-and later threatened to quit in protest. "And to Don's credit he said to me in January he didn't want to repeal the act, he just wanted to reform it." ("There's nobody here that's for the repeal of ESA," George Miller notes sardonically. "You know, 'I'm not for killing you. I'm just going to take your heart out.' ") But when Gilchrest wanted to broaden the task force's horizons by holding a hearing with actual scientists-including Pulitzer prize-winning Harvard biologist

E. O. Wilson, Zoo Atlanta Director Terry Maple, and Cornell University entomologist Thomas Eisner-he was flatly rebuffed. Then Newt Gingrich stepped in.

The House Speaker and Young are, in the words of one observer, "not friends." Gingrich once backed a bill to protect the Arctic Refuge, a cardinal sin in Young's book. Young, citing opposition to term limits and questions about Gingrich's budget arithmetic-but just as likely due to sheer orneriness-was one of only three GOP incumbents who refused to sign the Speaker's Contract With America. Gingrich caucused with Gilchrest on how to nudge Young and Pombo toward the political center. "We devised a little strategy that we needed to get Wilson and Eisner and Maple to meet some of the people on the task force-not in an intimidating way, just a discussion," Gilchrest reports. "New t was very good at facilitating all of that, and made it happen."

Whatever effect the Speaker's intervention turns out to have on the bill that ultimately emerges from the Resources Committee, it is not hard to imagine its effect on the chairman. Young, after all, is the man who arrogated unto the full committee control over all legislative matters touching on his state. ("You think I'm going to let anybody else conduct any hearings on Alaska?" he once asked.) He is also the author of the long-standing "Young rule," a loyalty oath he devised years ago for would-be members of House committees. "The Young rule is very simple," according to its creator. "You do not hurt your fellow Republicans. If a fellow Republican's district wants wilderness, you vote for it. If they don't, you vote against it."

As a party leader, Gingrich may have assumed he wasn't bound by such a pledge in his short-lived support for Alaska's wilds. Young, however, is not deterred by technicalities. Nor is he likely to strain himself accommodating the Speaker's ego or agenda. "He's very independent-that's a very important thing to understand about Don Young," says Christopher Arthur, a Capitol Hill veteran who now serves as legislative director to New York's Representative Hinchey. "Don Young does not want anyone pushing him around or telling him what to do. And while he knows how to lean on people, he does not like people leaning on him."

Or, as Young himself puts it: "Nobody messes with me."

"Bravado," wrote John McPhee, "is a synonym for Alaska." And, he might have added, for its only congressman. Saber-rattling (and oosik-brandishing) aside, however, it remains to be seen whether Young's bite will match his bluster.

Young did score a modest victory in July. With the help of his fellow Alaskan, Republican Senator Frank Murkowski, and the blessing of President Clinton-and only token opposition from committee Democrats-he convinced Congress to lift a 22-year-old ban on Alaskan oil exports to high-paying Asian markets. His top legislative priority, on the other hand, the radical rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, has made only fitful progress along its supposed "fast track." Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) offered his own repeal-minded proposal in May. But as Sierra went to press in mid-September, Young and Pombo had just introduced their long-awaited version of the bill. The Young-Pombo rewrite was hardly groundbreaking: it was based, according to Melanie Griffin, director of the Sierra Club's Land Protection Program, on "the same industry wish list" as Gorton's. The full Resources Committee now must reach agreement on language before the legislation moves to the House floor. Gilchrest is expected to offer an alternative reform measure-one that leaves the ESA's heart intact.

For anyone but Young, the snail-like progress of his agenda might be humbling. And prospects for future success would be daunting. Young himself allows that many House members don't share his deep-seated antipathy for the Endangered Species Act. At press time, a move to open the Arctic Refuge-offered not by Young , but as part of the Gingrich budget proposal-faced the likelihood of floor fights in both chambers of Congress, as well as the threat of a White House veto. Even on his own Resources Committee, Young faces resistance from his left and, harder to imagine, from his right. The panel is stocked with anti-government diehards-notably freshmen Wes Cooley (R-Ore.), Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), and Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho)-who make Young look moderate.

Nor are things likely to get any easier for Young and his comrades-in-arms. "I think the reality of legislating is settling in on them," says George Miller. "It's one thing when you don't have the responsibility and you want to criticize. It's another when you want to create something. It's much more difficult to answer the questions surrounding the Endangered Species Act than to just say we ought to repeal it."

A s Miller acknowledges, though, Young has a distinctly pragmatic side. Many, in fact, insist Young is more practical than doctrinaire, a 12-term Washington fixture comfortable with the give-and-take of legislating. Indeed, for all his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, he has long shown a businesslike willingness to lie down with his enemies. While he was railing publicly against the "immorality" of colleagues who supported the Alaska Lands Act, for example, he was successfully rounding up votes for dozens of weakening amendments.

"He's not an ideologue," says Resources Committee member Bill Richardson (D-N.M.). "He's somebody you can work with legislatively. He appears to be participating in what I consider to be very negative efforts, he's part of that agenda, but I know he's uncomfortable with some of the proponents. Now that still doesn't augur well for environmental issues, but at least he's somebody you can compromise with."

Whether Young is an ideologue or simply the id of the anti-environmental right, few conservationists expect to win much in his Resources Committee. The real fights, they say, will take place on the House and Senate floors.

"We're gonna slug it out," Miller vows. "We're not gonna give up because we're in the minority. We've got to make people vote, we've got to articulate a view, we've got to show an alternative. This is a lot more like 1970 than it is like 1995. This is like the beginning of the next environmental movement. They're gonna try to take it away and we're gonna try to hold onto it and extend it and expand it. The struggle is that fundamental."

Don Young, clearly, wants to take it away. Yet while he may be top dog on the Resources Committee, his claim to the title of alpha wolf-Bruce Babbitt's deference notwithstanding-is very much in doubt. After nine months, Young's record as chairman-like his previous 22 years in Congress-remains more swagger than substance. In America's wilderness, national parks, national forests, and other publicly owned lands, the battle for dominance has just begun.


More: Alaska's Terrible Trio

B. J. Bergman is an associate editor of Sierra.


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