The conservation community has lost a humble giant. Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League passed away early Monday morning. Our thoughts and condolences are with Adam’s loving wife and two sons, and with his Alaska Wilderness League family during this tragic time.
Adam exemplified pure kindness and unrivaled passion. We look forward to a day when the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is permanently protected thanks in large part to Adam’s life work. Until then, we will do all we can to support the legacy he leaves behind.
The Conservation Alliance has been a proud supporter of Alaska Wilderness League (AWL) for decades, and an admirer of Adam for just as long. With unrelenting optimism and a strong sense of urgency, Adam returned to AWL as the organization’s new executive director at the onset of the Trump administration after 15 years with the National Wildlife Federation. He remained a calm, bright light during a dark four years of endless attacks on a place he and so many others hold dear and sacred.
Conservation Alliance staff and dozens of members experienced his passion for the Refuge firsthand during our annual conservation policy training sessions in Washington DC. For thirty minutes Adam would speak eloquently and enthusiastically about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge until he was so impassioned his voice would raise to a shout and his arms would dance. At the end of our fly-in events, we would stash our luggage at the AWL office across from Capitol Hill, and after our meetings concluded, rush over to retrieve our belongings before dashing to the airport. It always felt to me like a proud parent was waiting for us to return home, holding open the door, vacating his office so we could use it to change out of our “fancy clothes”, offering any snacks or beverages he could find (even if it was stale halloween candy), and eager to hear how our day was. If time allowed, he would strategize and brainstorm creative ways to pull influence levers, forever. He was incredibly gifted and a steadfast and supportive leader.
Two years ago I was lucky enough to spend three days in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with Adam. Today, I’m unpacking lessons of perspective and priority he unknowingly taught me.
Adam was at peace in the Refuge. I watched him hike slowly and thoughtfully through the tussock, careful to note blooming flowers like Alaskan Phlox and Arctic Lupine. I don’t think his smile ever left his face, and his binoculars were always ready to identify birds or observe Porcupine caribou.
During our last evening on the Coastal Plain, two juvenile wolves approached our group as we ate dinner. At what seemed like 50 yards away, one of them bowed its head and stretched its front two paws as if to gesture a hello at us. It was magical, and Adam, still wearing his smile, mouthed an audible “wow”. He looked around at our group to notice everyone’s awestruck faces. It seemed to me he was happier witnessing the pure joy in other people than he was observing the wolves. He was selfless, so purely kind.
Later that evening we sipped the scotch that Adam had brought from home as we watched the sun gently bounce off the horizon at midnight. He talked about his two sons, his wife, his teams the mets and the jets. He beamed when he spoke of his family. Sure, protecting the landscape we were lucky enough to be sitting in was important to him, but nothing was more important than his family.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this trip would be the last big adventure I would go on before I had a family of my own. I feel so fortunate it was to the Refuge and so grateful it was with Adam.
May he rest in peace and may his family feel comfort and strength.