Alaska is a Battleground in "Green" Wars
Author: Ed Stoddard
One frontline is the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, which has been receding so fast that signs mark the years where it once stood -- vivid testimony to climate change. The 1917 sign is now about a mile (1.6 km) from the imposing wall of ice.
Alaska Gov. Palin has clashed with environmentalists by favoring shooting wolves from the air and expanded drilling for oil, while challenging a Bush administration decision to list polar bears as threatened because climate change is causing their icy habitat to melt away under their paws.
Her views on the environment have come under renewed scrutiny since Republican presidential candidate John McCain picked her last month to be his running mate in the Nov. 4 election against Democrat Barack Obama and his vice presidential pick, Joe Biden.
Palin believes global warming is occurring and will hit places like Alaska hard, but rejects the notion that human activities cause it -- putting her at odds with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and with McCain, who has sponsored legislation to curb greenhouse warming and has visited the Exit Glacier.
Some environmental groups in Alaska are appalled, but for some Alaskans and many conservative Republicans, Palin is just doing what is right for her state and country.
"When it comes to environmental issues, the only difference between (US President) George Bush and Sarah Palin is lipstick," said Kate Troll, executive director of Alaska Conservation Voters, a local green group.
"She doesn't agree with the most powerful scientific consensus in the world that climate change is linked to human activity," Troll said.
The UN climate panel, comprising hundreds of scientists and policy makers, found last year that with 90 percent certainty climate change is spurred by human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels that release climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The warming is most severe at high latitudes like Alaska. Evidence for this includes the retreat of the Exit Glacier and vanishing ice in the Arctic Sea. The summer ice cover in 2007 was the least ever recorded and this year could see another record, according to the UN National Snow and Ice Data Center.
The region's vulnerability is heightened by the fact that ecosystems in such latitudes have far fewer species than those in warmer areas, so the loss of just one or two can be a huge blow to its biodiversity.
In a recent and widely cited interview with Internet news site Newsmax, Palin was quoted as saying: "A changing environment will effect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location ... (but) I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made."
BEARS AND BIRDS
Palin is also in the cross hairs of environmentalists for supporting the shooting of wolves from planes. Supporters say "predator control" is a wildlife management tool.
Palin is also a strong advocate of more US drilling including in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
She has opposed the listing of the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because that status could hamper expanded drilling in remote regions. She has appealed against the decision to put the big white bear on the list; environmental groups have sought to have the suit dismissed.
Some Alaskans link its listing to attempts to thwart drilling in the bear's habitat.
"The polar bear is just a symbol of anti-drilling. If it's global warming we must be in the shadow of the sun," said 61-year-old Garret Schnel, an auto parts dealer in the Alaskan fjord town of Seward.
Like many Alaskans skeptical about climate change, he pointed to this past summer, which was one of the state's coldest in recent memory.
Perhaps more endangered than the polar bear but less of a "poster creature" is Kittlitz's murrelet, a marine bird whose rapid decline may be linked to receding tidewater glaciers which flow into the sea near Exit.
In and around Kenai Fjords National Park, the bird's numbers are estimated to be down about 80 to 90 percent over the last 10-15 years, according to the park's chief of resource management, Shelley Hall.
"They forage in areas that are found close to the glaciers," she said, adding that it was also a candidate for an endangered species listing.
Its status may not generate bear-sized passions but the bird is one of many fronts, big and small, in Alaska's green wars.
(Additional reporting by Yareth Rosen in Anchorage, Editing by Deborah Zabarenko and Frances Kerry)