Story last updated at 5:32 PM on Thursday, July 21, 2005

RFK Jr. thanks Keeper's hard work

By Chris Eshleman
Staff Writer

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. urges listeners to protect the public assets of Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and author, spoke at Cook Inlet Keeper's 10th anniversary party Sunday at the Homer Elks Lodge.  
Environmental organizations such as Cook Inlet Keeper need to be able to sue polluters in order to protect the world's waterways, said environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in Homer on Sunday.

Kennedy also credited Cook Inlet Keeper executive director Bob Shavelson with leading the Homer-based organization through 10 years of advocating for the inlet's waterways. Kennedy was the guest speaker at a gathering to celebrate the organization's 10-year anniversary.

"I know how difficult it is to find people who can do all the things that you need to do to run one of these organizations effectively," Kennedy said. "Nobody does that stuff better than Bob Shavelson."

Kennedy, also the president of an alliance of advocates for waterways, rivers and inlets around the country, joined Shavelson and more than 100 supporters to celebrate the anniversary. The event was held at the Homer Elks Lodge.

"This waterway, Cook Inlet, belongs to the people of Alaska," Kennedy said. "And the fish in that inlet belongs to the people. Everybody has a right to use them. Nobody has a right to use them in a way that will diminish or injure their use and enjoyment by others."

Along with Cook Inlet Keeper and the newly formed Prince William Soundkeeper, more than 130 organizations make up the national Watershed Alliance, which supports the local groups and represents them on legal issues that have national interest.

Kennedy is president of the alliance, and Shavelson is a board member.

On Sunday, Shavelson said Homer's organization was born from common interests held between fishermen, scientists and others concerned about rapid ecological changes in the area. A group of them in 1994 met in Homer for a series of workshops on science and environmental law.

The organization got a financial boost the next year, he said, after state and federal conservation groups sued oil and gas producers, who had racked up more than 4,200 violations of the federal Clean Water Act by polluting local waterways. The resulting settlement helped Cook Inlet Keeper open its doors in 1995.

Both Shavelson and Kennedy credited the modern waterkeeper movement as starting with a response by fishermen and concerned citizens to pollution in New York's Hudson River.

"To them, the environment was their backyard," Kennedy said. "It was the bathing beaches, the fishing holes, the swimming holes.

"They saw something that they thought they owned, which was the abundance of these fisheries and the purity of the Hudson's waters" being stolen.

After requests for help from government agencies went unanswered, the group confronted the polluters themselves. One fisherman had discovered not only that it was illegal to pollute any national waterway, but also an 80-year-old statute that rewarded those who reported a polluter to authorities. Since establishing itself as the Hudson Riverkeeper, the group has successfully forced polluters to pay more than $4 billion to restore the river, he said.

"This was a waterway that was a national joke in 1968," he said. "Today it's the richest water body in the North Atlantic."

That success spawned similar programs, all sharing the philosophy that waterways belong to people, not corporations, he said.

"I think that the worst thing that could happen to the environment is that it becomes the province of a single political party," Kennedy said.

He criticized the administration of President George W. Bush, however, for initiating or supporting approximately 400 major rollbacks to environmental laws. The Bush administration has placed former polluters in charge of almost all federal government agencies while successfully hiding that fact from major media corporations, he said.

"There's nothing wrong with having businesspeople in government — it's a good thing if your objective is to recruit competence and expertise," Kennedy said. "But in all of these cases, these individuals ... have not entered government service for the public interest."

Before Kennedy's speech, Shavelson, who was hired by the organization during its first year, said public participation has helped employees focus on the water as a public resource.

"One of the philosophies that Cook Inlet Keeper embraces is that not only do we have a fundamental right to clean water, but we also have an obligation and a duty to protect water quality for future generations," he said.

He also thanked numerous donors and board members, who he said had provided public comment, attended public meetings and inspired the organization's employees, and the organization's founding board members, who included Pamela Miller.

"She really was the vision behind Cook Inlet Keeper. Without her vision and hard work, I'm sure that this organization wouldn't exist today," Shavelson said.

Shavelson also presented plaques of appreciation to Bumppo Bremecker, Mike O'Meara, Michael Neece, Donnie Halstead and Tom Evans. Marie Herdegen, another founding board member, was not present.

On Tuesday, O'Meara agreed with Kennedy's assessment of environmental issues as being nonpartisan.

"How do you lose with an issue like clean water? It doesn't matter what your political stripe or agenda, you won't get by very well without it," he said.

Chris Eshleman can be reached at