Reflections on Attending the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Public Scoping Meeting in Anchorage on May 30, 2018

I’m in Anchorage from a few days before heading out to Glacier View for the summer. Typical tourist activity, I attended the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Public Scoping Meeting in Anchorage and participated in a rally outside.

My takeaway from listening to the testimony of stakeholders and the public at the public scoping meeting was that framing the issue of whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development as a question of “What is more important: the environment or economic development?” is completely incorrect. One of the speakers at the rally outside Dena’ina Center organized by Defend the Sacred AK said, “Nothing is sacred when everything is for sale.”

When I heard that, it clicked for me, and I think I understood the disjunction between what Gwich’in advocates were there to say and the EIS process as a whole. The coastal plain of ANWR is sacred to the Gwich’in people. Therefore, no amount of oil reserves, no amount of oil and gas tax revenue, no amount of job creation and infrastructure development can justify opening up even a de minimis portion of “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” to oil and gas exploration and production.

For my law school folks, this sounds like the “market inalienability” concept. Cynical law students, we laughed at Margaret Radin’s outlandish idea that some things have to be “market inalienable” to promote “human flourishing” when we learned about it in Property Law. As Radin defined it, something is “market inalienable” if it cannot be sold or purchased. “Human flourishing” sounds cheesy but it’s just a scholarly term for some essential value to keeping our humanity that cannot be valued by a market. She argued that things that are essential to personhood should be made “market-alienable”; in other words, we can and should protect those things by making laws to prevent their purchase or sale (she’s a legal scholar).

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act does the opposite of this. Literature from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from the public scoping meeting states that the purpose of the EIS is to “properly balance oil and gas development with existing uses and conservation of surfaces resources” which completely misses the point. As more than a few of the persons who gave testimony asserted, oil and gas development in ANWR is a human rights issue, maybe not as “human rights” are usually legally defined in relation to some international treaty, but at the most visceral, basic, plain-language level of concerning personhood.

The Gwich’in people have made it clear that the coastal plain in ANWR is essential to their personhood; it’s sacred and nothing can justify its economic exploitation. I would argue that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is also essential to the personhood of all Americans and it should be sacred to all of us. For better or worse (racist and expansionist and all those things that it was), the concept of “wilderness” is baked into our national identity, and ANWR represents the last of that great wilderness America has left. As Wallace Stegner put it:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

There were a lot of people at the hearing in support of drilling testifying that with modern technology the footprint of the drilling would be small, that American environmental standards are high (a weird reverse NIMBY argument, questionable at best), similar development has been done elsewhere with minimal impact. And those arguments kind of sound reasonable, but if we view the remaining wilderness as sacred, they’re all besides the point. It may sound radical, but at Martin Litton is quoted as saying in The Emerald Mile:

“People often tell me not to be extreme… ‘Be reasonable!’ they say. Buy I’ve never felt it did any good to be reasonable about anything in conservation, because what you give away will never come back — ever. When it comes to saving wilderness, we cannot be extreme enough.”

ANWR is federal public land. It belongs to all Americans. The Public Scoping Meetings for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program EIS are only focusing on soliciting comments from Alaskan communities, but due to the shady nature of this most recent attempt to open up ANWR to drilling, most Americans have not had to chance to express their concerns. BLM literature states the “scoping period provides an opportunity for people who could be affected by the proposed action to express their views and concerns, and to offer suggestions.” “People who could be affected” is all of us. So here is a call to action. Please submit your comment by June 19, 2018 to blm_ak_costalplain_EIS@blm.gov. Here’s the BLM site for more information.

From the cynical lawyer perspective, this is the least we can do to help protect the Arctic. The BLM is required to review all comments even if they decide to lump them together or determine they are irrelevant, so let’s do a tiny part to stall the process of opening up ANWR to drilling. Hint: Scoping comments are should address what the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement should be — alternatives to explore, impacts to assess — and if we want to stall development we need to argue that that scope of the EIS should be as broad and far-reaching as possible, e.g. the EIS should address the global effects of climate change.

Hearing members of Gwich’in and other indigenous Alaskan tribes speak, it struck me that it is so unethical to impose an inherently unsustainable economic system and way of life on peoples who trying to preserve their right to live a sustainable one. Even if we (Industrial America) purport to be offering them the conveniences of modern, industrialized, commodified and commercialized life, the current global economic system built on extraction of non-renewable natural resources is, by definition, doomed. We should be questioning our economic model of growth for growth’s sake and try learning from them instead.

Resources:

  • Follow Defend the Sacred AK on Facebook
  • I’m a big fan of Carrot Quinn’s beautiful writing and this summer she is hiking and kayaking across Alaska to raise money to support Defend the Sacred AK. Read about it hereSupporting her campaign and following her blog will be a fun way to learn more about ANWR and what’s at stake. 

Processing Failure: John Muir Trail 2017

I haven’t quite known what to write about the John Muir Trail, because I did not finish it. I was so excited, so pumped, so confident I was prepared. I had spent the whole summer preparing. I had put my life on hold to prepare. I did not seek employment all summer. I took a wilderness first aid course. I built up my backpacking skills with multiple multi-day high elevation trips, dialed down my gear, had a packing system, learned how I like to camp, how I like to eat and otherwise plan my hiking day. I completed complicated administrative paperwork and planned months ahead to export my dog from Japan and import her to Taiwan so my parents could take care of her while I was in the States for six weeks. I was so ready for the rush of an “I CAN do anything I set my mind to!” confidence boost to propel me to the next great thing I would think of.

In my mind, the JMT was a series of shorter multi-day hikes: 3 days to Tuolumne Meadows, 4 days to Red’s Meadow, 3 days to VVR, 8 days to Kearsarge Pass, 5 days to Whitney Portal. By the time I hit the trail I had already hiked 5 days in a row before, the only part I was really worried about was the 8-day segment. Would all my food fit in my bear can? Would my scalp get too itchy?

When my hiking partner Jackie and I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 20 and picked up our resupply boxes, the postman informed us that 1-2 inches of snow were forecast overnight.

“What are we going to do if it snows? We don’t have crampons or four-season tents.” Jackie asked, extremely concerned, almost fearfully.

“One or two inches of snow isn’t going to do anything. It’ll melt off. Crampons won’t help with fresh snow anyway.” I brushed off Jackie’s concerns. It had not occurred to me at all that we’d think of leaving the trail so early. We’d only been 3 days on the trail and on that day Jackie had just gotten into the swing of things, worked out the kinks in all her brand new gear, learned to pack her bag and was finally getting her hiking legs and looking like she was actually enjoying the hiking.

I woke up in the middle of the night to my tent touching my forehead. That’s weird, I thought groggily, my tent site is very flat, how did I slide down to one end? No matter, I’ll just scooch down a little…. Wait. Something is pressing down on my feet. “Arrugh! Muuurrghh!” *punch kick punch kick* In a claustrophobic half-awake panic, I make sounds that are not words.

“Tina! Tina!” I hear Jackie call as I realize the stuff pressing down on me is snow. Realizing it’s snow, I dig around for my headlamp and my mind is rushing. What can I use for a snow shovel? What can I use as a snow shovel? I put on rain pants and rain jacket, my glove liners and extra rubberized gloves salvaged the day before from the Half Dome cable glove pile, grab an empty 2L Sawyer Squeeze bag, and unzip the vestibule of my tent. A pile of snow drops down. “Whumph!”

All sides of my little hexagonal tent were pressed down and buried in the snow. Anticipating a stormy night, I’d pitched my SMD Lunar Solo low to shed wind, but that meant it was especially ill-suited to shed snow. The Sawyer Squeeze bag turned out to work quite well as a snow scoop, and after digging my tent out and re-tensioning it, I helped Jackie dig her tent out. When I thought of 1-2 inches of snow falling overnight on our tents, I had imagined light snow fluttering away. I forgot that early season snow tends to be wet and heavy. In any case it was more like 6-8 inches of snow that fell anyway.

In the morning, everyone was huddled inside Tuolumne Meadows Grill warming up with hot food and drink and exchanging information. The few northbounders, so close to finishing their hikes, were going to continue on. Someone reported that at least 10 southbounders had departed that morning already and they had tramped down a trail, so it should be fine, and two southbounders we were talking to decided to keep hiking. So late in the season many of the hikers were PCTers that had already hiked all the way to Canada and were back to finish the Sierras they had skipped earlier in the summer; they were very experienced and willing to suffer. I can’t remember what conversation I had with Jackie, but she was not prepared to handle the snow at all. I look back at my journal and right after getting back in my sleeping bag after the snow collapsed tent ordeal, I wrote “Alt plan shuttle back to Yosemite, stay a night, shuttle back to Tuolumne over weekend when it’s sunny.” That was the beginning of our compromise plan. I don’t think I would have left the trail if I didn’t think I could get back on it. It was the last weekend the YARTS bus was scheduled to run.

Down in Lee Vining we learned that the YARTS bus would only run that weekend if Tioga Pass was open by 2 PM Friday (it snowed again Thursday night), and, obviously, not subsequently closed. Back on the Internet, reading reports of knee to thigh deep snow on Donohue Pass made me more and more depressed. I moped over gourmet fish tacos and a slice of carrot cake as big as my head and drowned my sorrows in Mammoth Lakes beer. I think Jackie took pity on me when she proposed we hop on the bus Saturday morning instead of Sunday morning, as was our original plan (to wait until the snow had melted more).

Back on the trail, Lyell Canyon was gorgeous, with trees iced for the holidays, the clear stream singing over the rocks, and Donohue Pass glistening high and white in the distance like something out of the Lord of the Rings. During the day it was brilliant and perfect hiking weather, not at all cold and not at all sweaty, but once the sun dropped below the ridge to the west of the valley, it became deathly cold.

I was too elated to be back on the trail to care and, despite the biting wind, left my tent fly half open to watch the stars appear as ice crawled toward the middle of the small pool at Upper Lyell Base Camp. In the morning, it was so cold that the water in my cook pot started to freeze over as soon as I filtered it in, and ice crystals grew off the top of the Sawyer Squeeze Filter when I set it down. I didn’t sleep well, shifting my weight over my crappy sleeping pad when various body parts went numb, but my toes stayed warm. Jackie, on the other hand, had a truly miserable night. No matter what, I really really wanted to get over Donohue Pass, and she really really did not want to spend another two subzero (Celsius) nights in the backcountry. We compromised. I got one more night so we could go over Donohue Pass to Thousand Island Lake and she got one less night because we would take up our campsite-mates Jerry and Sam’s offer of a ride from Agnew Meadows. As it turned out, between Thousand Island Lakes being so breathtakingly amazing and me throwing in sleeping bag liner, Benadryl and earplugs to make things marginally more bearable for Jackie, we did hike all the way to Red’s Meadow before calling it quits.

Could I have continued on by myself after Red’s Meadow? I don’t know. One big mistake we made is Jackie and I never discussed how to handle the kind of situation we found ourselves in where one person wants to bail and one person wants to keep going. When we applied for the permit, neither of us had backpacked before, but by the time we got on the trail I was a much more experienced hiker than she was. As it turned out, we had different priorities, expectations, fitness levels, risk tolerance, and congenital cold tolerance. Jackie was also nursing what turned into a full-blown sinus infection after so many nights in the cold. The other big mistake was that we underestimated what it meant to hike in the Sierras in the shoulder season. Days were short to make miles and camping in freezing was miserable. Services were shuttering up along the trail. We were in Tuolumne Meadows the last weekend it was open. MTR was already closed. We probably could’ve hiked to VVR, but egress from VVR is to the west of the Sierras and seemed logistically difficult. South of VVR all lateral trails would take over a day of extra hiking to reach a remote trailhead. We didn’t know if some of those trails were even passable since they were little travelled this year due to the unusually high snow pack. And if the reason we had to take a lateral trail to exit the JMT was snow, it would be highly likely the relevant access roads would be closed… maybe until next spring! A couple weeks after we got off the trail, I learned that a pair of hikers we met on the YARTs bus back to Tuolumne Meadows did manage to make it to Mt. Whitney. Seeing that on Facebook threw me into another depressive slump. The weather had held out for them, but, as a Facebook commenter noted, that was a matter of luck. I was super jealous, but I am too risk adverse for that.

So, I still yearn for the Sierra Nevada and Mt. Whitney beckons. I would like to try to hike the JMT again next year between late-August and early-September; my permit options have widened because I have done the section inside Yosemite National Park. But, I don’t know if I can put off life for another year to do it. I still don’t know what I am doing with my life, and I don’t want the JMT to be a weird excuse for not making hard decisions… or maybe I should just hike the PCT from April 2018 while I’m at it, “it” being procrastinating from “real life”.

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Disaster strikes

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Looking up Tioga Pass on Friday evening from the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining (home of the Whoa Nellie Deli), hoping it won’t snow overnight again

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Back on the trail!

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At least I got to see this

[If you haven’t seen them already, I posted my best photos from the JMT along with a short daily summary for each day of my 9 Day 2017 JMT Adventure on Instagram (@tumeketina or see the Instagram widget on the right column of this blog) shortly after leaving the trail in October.] 

What’s going on in my life

“The Mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

Last winter, I quit my job as in-house counsel at a Japanese oil and gas company and moved to Nozawa Onsen, the best ski town in Japan, to be a ski bum.

What precipitated this life reset?

When I joined Facebook at the beginning of law school, in the “About Me” block (which is now hidden away three clicks in) I wrote “aspiring crafty person and ecoterrorist wannabe.” (It still says that.)

After law school I somehow ended up in the energy industry representing traditional fossil fuel interests. “Somehow” means I took the path of least resistance and of least risk. I did all the right things to make sure I was “Headed in the Right Direction” (a useful concept coined by my friend Lex in this great post here).

We are all dependent on fossil fuels, so I don’t think oil and gas companies are evil. I often responded to the typical conversation starter “What do you do?” with “I’m an evil oil and gas lawyer.” But, that was more an expression of ambivalence about my job. I wasn’t proud of it and I never wanted to talk about it.

By default, living and working in Japan, even as a fancy expatriate, means my carbon footprint was lower than the average American (tiny apartment, no clown-like-car-habit, eating less meat). I was making enough money to easily save more than 50% of my take home pay and well on my way to financial independence in less than a decade.

I read somewhere on the Internets that if you aren’t waking up everyday excited about life, you are not doing it right. And I think that’s true. Most of us just forget or think that we don’t deserve it or think that it’s unrealistic and that being a grown-up means learning to make sacrifices. Waking up everyday, putting on my lawyer lady costume, getting on the crowded trains and squeezing into the elevator with all the glassy-eyed salaryman drones who drown-out the emptiness in their lives with copious amounts of alcohol…

Yes, #firstworldproblems, but Carrot Quinn says in this awesome podcast episode (please listen!): “I think there becomes a point for people where if you’re living a life that feels wrong… Hopefully you will reach a spot where it’s so painful that that will act as a catalyst to get you out.” That finally happened to me.

Being a junior attorney in a large law firm really wears away at your confidence. Late one night my third year of practice after all the partners and senior associates had gone home, I was writing up a simple e-mail to the client and realized I did not feel comfortable sending it without someone more senior checking it over. It wasn’t advice, just asking some questions, but I didn’t want to sound stupid, or didn’t know what we lawyers were supposed to already know, or didn’t know if there was any politics that I wasn’t aware of. When I realized I couldn’t send the stupid 5-line email, I felt so disempowered that I felt like crying. I was so far away from when I started law school and was pretty confident I could do anything I set my mind to.

When you are a law student, they say you have to get a good internship your 1L summer, so that your can get a summer associateship with a big law firm your 2L summer, so that you can start your career at the largest, highest ranked firm possible, because it’s harder to move from a smaller, less prestigious firm up; and you should be a transactional lawyer because it’s harder to develop the relationships and experience needed to go in-house as a litigator, and after you go in-house, it’s hard to move back to private practice because you have no client base… It’s a mentality of scarcity and lack of opportunity and being trapped.

Back to the spot that was so painful. I parachute out of big law to a cushy in-house job where I am generally able to go home on time and have all of my weekends and take all of my leave. I am able to go out with friends on weeknights and recreate outdoors on the weekend (hiking, biking, snowboarding). I just become so angry that I still have to waste 8-9 hours a day on something that to me is not me, is not my life, and not anything that I want to be doing and that I eventually give up on trying to rationalize as having a positive impact on anybody. Since I have no motivation at work, my work ethic is slipping and I’m really angry at myself for that. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I am not the person I thought I was or that I want to be.

On a whim, in Spring 2016, looking for an excuse to make a trip back to Chicago, I sign up for the Chicago Marathon lottery. And then I get in. After I get in, I read up on how to train for a marathon, including that you should probably only sign up for a marathon if you have already completed a 10k race. At this point, the longest distance I have run is a 4k charity race (it was supposed to be a 5k but part of the route got closed off due to construction for the Tokyo Olympics). I promptly sign up for a 10k. I just follow the free Runkeeper beginning marathon training plan. I run three evenings after work and do my long run on Saturday. I used to hate running. It’s boring and laborious, but it’s also empowering. The first rule of Zombieland is “Cardio”, after all. After a few weeks, my body feels great; I go on a weekend hike with friends and never get winded. I try all the cakes from the convenience store and eat tons of potato chips and burgers and I still look great. Marathon training is a great excuse for getting out of time wasting social commitments, mostly work drinking parties, and because I am an introvert this means I am left with more mental energy and a better mood. Every weekend, the long runs get longer, and I’m amazed at how far my legs can take me. Most importantly, I am reminded that I do have the discipline and grit to do anything I set my mind to. I am not just a crappy second-class worker after all; the reason that my work ethic at my job is slipping is that I just don’t want to be doing it. I ask myself, what do I want to be doing?

One day I’m running and listening to this podcast and it really resonates with me: http://dirtbagdiaries.com/start-saying-yes/ (Warning: Do not listen, or your could find yourself quitting your job too. Actually, please do listen and rescue yourself from the doldrums of corporate life.) I send it over Line to a friend and text, “I’m going to do this!” She says, “Oh no, it’s gotten that bad huh?” I say, “No! This is a positive development!”

I put in my notice the day before I leave for my vacation to the US to run the 2016 Chicago Marathon. That was the beginning of October 2016.

My long-term goal is to live a small, sustainable life in the mountains. I’m not quite sure what shape it will take, but at least I’m trying to pivot towards it instead of just thinking or talking about it.

Over the winter, when my life was structured by my job at The Schneider Hotel and snowboarding and I had a cheap place to live and colleagues doing the same thing, this life reset was pretty easy. Since the seasonal gig finished at the end of March, I’ve been losing hair from the stress of worrying about what’s next and how to make this lifestyle sustainable.

In the meantime, my short-term goal is to thru-hike the John Muir Trail this year. My hiking partners and I currently plan to hike in mid-September. (We had to reapply for a permit late due to high snowpack in the Sierras.) Like the marathon, it’s a fitness and mental tenacity “reach goal” for me. When I applied for the permit in January, I had zero backpacking experience. I just completed my first backpacking trip, a 3-day solo north-to-south hike across Yakushima (which I will write about soon), but I have still never pooped in the bush (due to the fragile ecosystem on Yakushima, you are not allowed to poo in the woods). I plan to spend the summer training for the JMT hike and challenging my comfort zone. The purpose of this blog is to document some of that, since I’m now doing things I’m excited about, that I’m proud of and that I want to share with you.

“Adventure is out there!” – Up