Adam Kolton, defender of the Arctic refuge, dies

By Heather Richards | 04/27/2021 01:38 PM EDT

Adam Kolton, who died yesterday, was a longtime leader at the Alaska Wilderness League and National Wildlife Federation.

Adam Kolton, who died yesterday, was a longtime leader at the Alaska Wilderness League and National Wildlife Federation. Alaska Wilderness League

Adam Kolton, a Washington-based environmentalist who spent much of his career fighting oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, died of cancer yesterday. He was 52.

"When we speak of the shoulders of giants on which we stand, Adam is among those ranks," the Alaska Wilderness League wrote in a statement announcing his death. Kolton was the group’s executive director.

Fellow environmental advocates recalled Kolton as a tireless advocate for the Arctic, even as the Trump administration made oil development in the refuge a centerpiece of its energy agenda.


"He never lost hope," said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, in a tweet. "He believed we would prevail no matter the odds & gave us all the confidence to be our very best."

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Yukon chapter tweeted: "We feel a sense of shock and disbelief."

A journalism and history major at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Kolton joined the Alaska Wilderness League in 1997. He soon butted heads with Alaska leaders and criticized the White House over attempting to open the refuge to oil and gas exploration.

"You’re talking about a major industrial complex, even with today’s technology, in the biological heart of the wildlife refuge," Kolton told The Baltimore Sun in 2001, as the George W. Bush administration pushed for ANWR development to increase domestic oil production. That push was stymied by Congress and environmentalists.

Kolton joined the National Wildlife Federation in 2002 and worked there 14 years. He oversaw a 40-person staff in D.C. as vice president for national advocacy, working on legislative strategies for public lands in the Rocky Mountain West and advocating for reform of Army Corps of Engineers wetlands protections. Kolton was co-chair of NWF’s America’s Great Waters Coalition.

Collin O’Mara, president of NWF, said yesterday that people from the group were "devastated" by Kolton’s death.

"Adam left an indelible mark on the conservation movement and epitomized the type of authentic, collaborative, and passionate approach that is the very best of conservation," he said in a statement.

Kolton would rejoin the Alaska Wilderness League in 2017, following the election of Donald Trump. He was one of the most vocal opponents of the new administration’s "energy dominance" approach in the Arctic and criticized the congressional decision in 2017 to open the refuge’s coastal plain to oil exploration.

"He took the reins of an organization he called small but mighty," the Alaska Wilderness League statement said. "More than anyone, Adam was the standard bearer of that ethos, leading the League with grace, humility and purpose."

The Alaska Wilderness League was one of more than a dozen groups to sue the Trump administration for what it argued was a faulty environmental review of the refuge oil program. After the first Arctic oil sale earlier this year, Kolton called it an "epic failure," arguing that the anemic interest from the industry proved even oil developers were no longer interested in drilling in the refuge.

Kolton saw a turning of the tide for the fate of ANWR and public lands in the election of President Biden, who’d campaigned on a promise to protect the refuge and issued a temporary freeze on oil and gas activity there after taking office.

"Today I am hopeful," Kolton wrote in a January blog post. "We have put behind us a long national nightmare of environmental carnage and can once again set our sights on bipartisan conservation progress."

Outside of his senior roles at NWF and AWL, Kolton worked in the public affairs department of the Sierra Club in the early 1990s. He also organized youth baseball and cultural exchanges in Puerto Rico, according to an AWL bio.

He lived in Bethesda, Md., with his family and their dog, Riley.

Kolton is survived by two sons, 17-year-old Jacob and 14-year-old Sam, as well as his wife, Laura; his parents, Chet and Carol; his sister Lisa; mother-in-law Priscilla; and brother-in-law Sandy.