Billionaires and big donors: A Yes for Salmon mainstay

If you’ve been following our series of posts, you’ve already read about the increasingly prominent role Outside money is playing in our state’s policy debates – and you also know that this is nothing new. For the last 40 years, environmental activists have parachuted into Alaska from around the world to dig in their heels against development in the state of Alaska.

While ANWR may have been the primary battleground for most of the last 40 years, Yes for Salmon is the environmentalists’ new rallying point.

Earlier pieces in our series focused on the role of Outside foundations like the New Venture Fund and Hewlett Foundation– big-money groups that spend millions to influence local policy debates in a manner that advances their off-oil agenda.

But these foundations aren’t alone. They are joined in their efforts by a group of wealthy individual activists from everywhere but Alaska who have made our state’s business their own by funneling their money into the Yes for Salmon campaign.

Jewelers, Hedge Fund Managers, and Millionaires: The New Experts on Alaska Conservation

If the salmon issue in Alaska has proven anything, perhaps it’s the fact that spending money to influence policy does not require any particular expertise in the issue.

A sampling of Yes for Salmon’s wealthy individual donors is proof positive of this.

Take Michael Kowalski. From New Jersey, Mr. Kowalski is the former Chairman of the Board and CEO of Tiffany & Co. who, upon retiring from the high-end jeweler in 2015, said he wanted to “become an environmental activist.”

In a 2015 New York Times op-ed, Mr. Kowalski decried the proposed Pebble Mine, saying it would “obliterate miles of pristine streams and thousands of wilderness acres that sustain the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.” In that same piece, he called Pebble Mine’s threat to Bristol Bay an example of “the enormous human and environmental cost of irresponsible mining.”

Yes for Salmon, not surprisingly, aligns completely with his interests given that it would make mining – and all other development – almost impossible in Alaska.

John Childs, meanwhile, is a hedge fund manager who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars from his home bases in Florida and Massachusetts to groups like the Wild Salmon Center to fight for Ballot Measure 1.

And of course, no discussion of billionaire eco-activism would be complete without a mention of Tom Steyer.

A billionaire hedge fund manager, Steyer has millions of investments in renewable energy projects – all at a time when he is one of the main forces driving campaigns against the oil and gas industries nationwide, according to various reports. He has been a significant donor to the New Venture Fund, playing a significant – if behind the scenes – role in funding the campaign for Ballot Measure 1.

Steyer – a poster child for Outside money – has a long history of parachuting into communities around the country to influence local races in a bid to advance his environmental policies. In 2013, Tom Steyer gave $224,000 to back candidates opposed to a coal-export terminal in Whatcom County, Washington, an amount that the Oregon Observer referred to as “unprecedented.” The influx of money increased the divide between two constituencies within the Democratic Party: union workers, who were in favor of the project, and environmental activists, who opposed the terminal.

Advancing their Interests – not Alaska’s

By now, these obvious efforts to sway Alaska policy to their liking should come as no surprise.

The need for real Alaskans to demand honesty in our state’s politics is more pronounced than it’s ever been.