Dune Lankard: Scream of the Little Bird

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It takes a special kind of courage to take a stand against your friends and neighbors--especially if you're a member of Alaska's proud Eyak Indian tribe. But that's what Glen ("Dune") Lankard, 39, had to do to help preserve the last remaining coastal temperate rain forest in North America.

The opportunity was born of a disaster, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. After Exxon agreed to pay a $1 billion settlement, environmentalists had a great idea: Why not have the U.S. and Alaska governments use the funds to buy development rights to some of the 17.8 million hectares of land held by native Alaskans? Then tracts could be set aside as protected forest. Native Alaskans could invest the proceeds, and forests would be saved for hunting, fishing and tourism. But the natives would have to forgo income from logging. Advocates of the plan needed a native Alaskan to help sell it, so Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska biologist, and David Grimes, a fisherman from the village of Cordova, recruited Dune Lankard.

At the time, Lankard was a commercial fisherman who sat on the board of the Eyak Corporation, which administered the tribe's land rights. He had grown up fishing for salmon and herring in Cordova and never identified with environmentalists. "I used to call them 'granolas,'" he says with a laugh. But then he became concerned about how runoff from logging operations was polluting the streams fish use to spawn.

When he first proposed the idea of forest protection to Eyak Corp., his fellow board members voted him down, 8 to 1. "They called me a greenie and a tree hugger," he recalls. Undeterred, Lankard gave up his fishing business, set up the Eyak Rainforest Preservation Fund and began lobbying politicians and native Alaskans throughout the state. "Indigenous people have thousands of years of being preservationists," he would argue. "We need to become stewards of the land again." In Lankard's view, not only the trees and streams were endangered; so were the native cultures that depended on them. But he was taunted on the street and cursed at sea. An Indian logger pushed him against a wall in a Cordova bar and threatened him with a pool cue. He was voted off the Eyak Corp. board and sued twice.

Lankard took his fight all the way to Washington, where lawmakers would oversee the land deals. He became a familiar sight in the Capitol with his battered leather backpack, laptop computer and a small, smooth stone from his beloved Copper River that he always carried. The chief of the Eyak tribe renamed him Jamachakih. Translation: "little bird that screams really loud and won't shut up."

The lobbying finally paid off as other native Alaskans warmed to conservation. By 1998, nearly 285,000 hectares of coastal habitat from Kodiak Island to Prince William Sound were protected, giving a windfall of $380 million to the native corporations.

Now Lankard wants to stop the building of a road across the Copper River Delta Basin, a rugged wetland where bald eagles still soar. "This is the last refuge," says Lankard. "Our way of life is gone if they build that road." His opponents had better prepare for a long, noisy battle.