Students make waves in Juneau
Students honored Senator Hollis French an AYEA Legislator of the Year at the Civics & Conservation Summit in Juneau last week. From left; Griffin Plush of Seward, Emily Brease of Healy, Senator Hollis French and Hunter Doan of Seward.
Two Seward High School freshmen just returned from an interesting civics lesson and lobbying trip to the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau as part of a delegation of 20 young leaders ages 13-18 from Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, or AYEA. Seward High School students Hunter Doan and Griffin Plush came back from last week’s trip feeling their own power, and ready to change their world.
“I loved it, and I think our legislators love it when we come in and talk about things they care about,” said Doan, who was one of the peer trainers, having already attended the summit last year. “I think It makes a bigger impact when the youth come in and talk to them versus adults.”
The AYEA Civics & Conservation summit provides a week of fun and adrenaline-pumping civic engagement lessons at the state capitol. There, the students learned how to talk with the media, communicate with elected officials, how to read a bill and how to impact decisions that leaders make about the environment and their lives. This year included sessions on the tribal resolution process, environmental justice and defining sources of power and influence.
The 20 students broke up into smaller focus groups and researched bills of interest to them. Hunter and Griffin’s focus group researched “Frankenfish,” a genetically-modified salmon, which they opposed. They lobbied their representatives against allowing the Frankenfish via House Bill 100, which would ban genetically modified fish in Alaska. Last year, Hunter’s focus was on ocean acidification. “I think last year we really made an impact on Representative (Paul) Seaton, and we helped convince him that our ocean acidification bill needed to pass,” Doan said.
Another issue the group focused on this year was a bill (SB 152) that would ban certain chemicals commonly used as fire retardants in furniture and other household items from being sold in Alaska. The chemicals are known as PBDEs or Polybrominated diphenylethers, explained Plush. They are believed to cause bad health effects and may be carcinogenic, added Doan. Both discussed their concerns with Representative Seaton and Senator Gary Stevens, who agreed that the ban was important and should be passed.
Another AYEA-supported bill would require legislative approval for large scale sulfide mining activity in the Bristol Bay watershed, an attempt to slow down or stall the controversial Pebble Mine project. They also supported a bill to match state aid with federal aid for school meal programs. It contained a provision that encouraged the use of locally-grown food.
The highlight of their visit however was a surprise visit by Governor Sean Parnell, who unexpectedly popped into his office to greet the group and take their questions. The governor talked a lot about reforming the tax code in favor of oil companies to encourage them to develop in Alaska, Doan said.
“Hunter’s maturity and leadership skills as such a young leader were absolutely phenomenal,” said Claire Berezowitz, AYEA program coordinator. “It was truly incredible to see him energize the group.” Both boys showed an understanding of the issues and the political process, she said. “Their ability and passion to relate it to their lawmakers, and to community in Seward was really inspiring to see. They really took the bill to heart, and their efforts came to fruition the final day of the summit when they met with their legislators.”
Senator Gary Stevens, Senator Hollis French and Senator Bill Wielechowski were honored as AYEA’s Legislators of the Year on Thursday, at a wild Alaska salmon feed the group organized across the street from the state capitol. Senator Stevens was honored for working to re-establish the Alaska Coastal Management Program.