Wasilla, Alaska -
Long before John McCain made Gov. Sarah Palin his running mate and before her views on global warming became a campaign issue, Palin's environmental priorities were crystallized in a city where she was mayor and where development long has trumped conservation.
Palin declared Wasilla "open for business," and business rushed in: Dozens of strip malls sprung up along the city's two glacial lakes.
The costs of such fast - and sometimes haphazard - growth can be seen even from Palin's lakefront home. Once-pristine Lake Lucille is plagued by high levels of phosphorous, which chokes off oxygen from the salmon and trout. Scientists put the blame on nearby development.
Palin refined her pro-business attitudes after becoming governor in 2006. Faced with choosing between development and the environment, she has sided more often than not with business interests:
-She helped kill a ballot initiative that would have blocked a massive new gold and copper mine from being built near the world's most productive wild salmon fishery.
-She challenged the listing of the polar bear and Cook Inlet beluga whale as endangered species. The listings might have threatened the state's oil and gas industry.
-Her administration helped kill a bill banning water pollution near where fish spawn.
-She started a committee to address global warming. But with oil companies contributing the largest percentage of the state's greenhouse gases, her committee set no goal for reducing emissions. Unlike other states, Alaska's climate change priority is focused on ways to adapt to warmer temperatures.
In a state where oil, gas, mining and fishing are among the biggest industries, her pro-business mind-set often puts her at odds with environmentalists.
Yet when thinking green did not jeopardize jobs or growth, she has been a leader. She pushed for $250 million in renewable energy research and an additional $60 million in rebates for Alaskans to make their homes energy efficient.
In Wasilla, being pro-business was necessary. When Palin took office as mayor in 1996, the region's 10.3 percent unemployment rate was one-third higher than the state's and twice that of Anchorage.
Palin gave people what they wanted: jobs that did not require an hour-long commute to Anchorage, 44 miles to the south, or month-long stints on the frigid North Slope oil fields. She supported business-friendly tax policies that, coupled with Wasilla's cheap land and limited development restrictions, made the city attractive to big box retailers.
"There used to be a stop sign right at the main - well, it's hard to explain what the main intersection is. You can't even tell anymore," said Gary LoRusso, a Wasilla real estate agent and surveyor who moved to Alaska in the 1980s.
In Palin's first two years as mayor, the city handed out more land-use permits than ever. Population grew 25 percent on her watch, and the city became increasingly dependent on its sales tax.
Now, all that asphalt sends storm water rushing into the city's creeks and lakes, along with occasional garbage. Scientists have noted diseased salmon and excessive levels of bacteria, petroleum and sediment in the water.
The retail crush finally cost the city its biggest attraction this year, when officials permanently moved the start of the Iditarod sled dog race to a more rural setting, citing Wasilla's "less desirable" development.
"It could have been such a nice city," LoRusso said. "We didn't have to grow this way. Now we're stuck with it."
Garvan Bucaria, a retired Forest Service biologist who has called for more stringent environmental codes in Wasilla, does not blame Palin for the sprawl. She was not the first pro-development mayor, or the last, in what he calls a "rubber stamp" town.
His take on Palin: "There was no vision."
Environmentalists lobbed similar criticism when, as governor, Palin proposed giving every Alaskan $1,200 from state oil proceeds to help cover higher energy costs. Critics called it shortsighted, said it did nothing to promote conservation and said some money should be spent to reduce consumption.
At the Republican convention, supporters chanted "drill, baby, drill!" Palin has questioned whether humans have played a role in global warming and has said it is not important to know the cause. That latter point has puzzled even some of the people her administration has asked to advise her climate change committee.
"If it's all just a natural, cyclical thing, maybe we should just all go home and read a book," said Kathie Wasserman, an adviser to Palin's climate change committee.
Palin resists regulations that will hurt average citizens, said Larry Hartig, Palin's environmental commissioner. But she will make a tough call if it is the right one, he said. Faced with increasing pollution, Palin restricted the use of old two-stroke engines on the Kenai River. Fishermen strongly opposed the limitations but Hartig recalls the governor telling aides: "This is what we need to do, but people are not going to like it."
The independent Kenai Watershed Forum credits the decision with reducing oil pollution by 66 percent in one year.
"The constituency that she plays well to, Joe Six-Pack or whatever, this was a decision that negatively affected the average person," said Robert Ruffner, the watershed group's director.
Early in her term, Palin invited environmental groups to her office. But Kate Troll, an adviser to the climate change committee, has been disappointed. Palin brought the pro-business mind-set with her from Wasilla to the governor's office, Troll said.
If Palin makes energy an issue in the White House, like Vice President Dick Cheney has, Troll expects that mind-set to continue.
"She errs on the side of development," Troll said. "Would she carry that forward to being vice president? Yes, more than likely. She is who she is."
On the Net:
Alaska Climate Change Strategy: http://www.climatechange.alaska.gov/index.htm