Fran Ulmer’s career took her from UW–Madison to Alaska, where she fell in love with the state
They arrive every summer — pods of massive humpback whales that voyage thousands of miles from wintering waters in Hawaii and Mexico. Having fasted the entire season, they come to the top of the world with one abiding objective: to pig out.
At Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, the knobby-headed mammals feast on small schooling fish for as long as 23 hours a day, gulping down as much as half a ton of food in that span. It’s a made-for-tourists binge, punctuated by explosive full-body breaching, followed by the equally explosive splashdown.
But there is more to the scene than meets the eye. The park’s namesakes — 1,045 tidewater and terrestrial glaciers that span 3.3 million acres (an area slightly smaller than Connecticut) — are showing signs of thinning and receding, as are 95 percent of the state’s glaciers. For the first time in centuries, sunlight bathes limestone and argillite forged in the Paleozoic Era.
These warning signs from nature weigh on Fran Ulmer ’69, JD’72, who since 2011 has chaired the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. Congress created the seven-member body in 1984 — when the effects of greenhouse gases on global temperatures were not common knowledge — to “observe, understand, and predict Arctic environmental change.” The commission develops and recommends national Arctic research policy, strategies that could aid in the country’s understanding of and response to climate change.
“It’s alarming and disturbing … when I think about how these changes are going to magnify, multiply, and dramatically impact the lives of not only my grandchildren, but future generations all over this planet,” Ulmer says.
Ulmer arrived in Alaska in 1973, after serving a “boring” stint doing antitrust litigation for the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, DC. When a UW Law School classmate working in the state beckoned her to the Last Frontier, she bit.
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Ulmer took a job in the state capitol with the Legislative Affairs Agency, where she was the only woman lawyer. She helped to develop the oil-and-gas-taxation system as the state prepared for construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, an engineering and political feat. For Ulmer, it was an exhilarating learning experience.
“I went from not knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” she says, “to feeling certain that Alaska was the right place for me. I was in the middle of a very exciting place and time.”
Ulmer was working as an aide to Governor Jay Hammond when motherhood intervened. For a few years, she was a stay-at-home mom to her young daughter and son, volunteering at church and for organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the March of Dimes. Her volunteerism stretched to the Juneau Planning Commission, which served as an unexpected springboard into higher office. When the mayor resigned in 1983 to take a job in Japan, friends nudged Ulmer to run for his seat.
Her win marked the beginning of 18 years in elective office, including a stint in the state House of Representatives as minority leader. In 1994, she was the first woman to be elected to statewide office in Alaska, as lieutenant governor to Governor Tony Knowles. The pair, both Democrats, met when each was a mayor, with Knowles in Anchorage. Knowles and Ulmer won their race by a mere 584 votes.
“A lot of people say that I gave her the really tough jobs, while I took the easy ones. That may well be true,” Knowles says.
The tough jobs included expanding internet access to rural communities, replacing the state’s old punch-card ballots with the first ever optical scanning technology, and an unsuccessful ballot initiative that would give priority hunting and fishing rights to native Alaskans who lead subsistence lifestyles. (At least nine indigenous groups, most of them living in rural areas, rely on hunting, fishing, and gathering for survival.) Ulmer won the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002, but lost the race to Republican Frank Murkowski.
“The importance of moving forward continues one way or another, with or without us, but I can’t help but think the world would make more progress if the U.S. was serious about its commitments.”
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Nearly 500 miles to the northwest of Glacier Bay, Ulmer lives in the shadow of the Chugach Mountains, which provide a dramatic backdrop to her home in Anchorage. Snow falls on the peaks later in the fall than is typical, and it’s disappearing earlier than normal in the spring. In 2017, lack of snow forced the famed Iditarod sled dog race to move its starting line from Willow, just north of Anchorage, to colder northerly climes in Fairbanks.
While the United States is among eight countries that make up the Arctic bloc of nations, Ulmer concedes this is sometimes a surprise to those in the Lower 48.
“Most people know that Alaska is in the north and in the Arctic, but I think it’s kind of a remote idea for many Americans that we’re an Arctic nation,” says Ulmer, who was appointed to her post by President Barack Obama and finishes her term on the research commission in spring 2019. “Unquestionably, over the last seven to eight years, there’s more press coverage about the rapid changes in the Arctic.”
Her adoptive state may provide an early warning of what could lie ahead for the rest of the world. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, its glaciers are losing 75 billion tons of ice each year, a major contribution to the rise in sea level.
Ulmer helped plan Obama’s 2015 visit to Alaska, during which he surveyed firsthand the effects of climate change. Lynn Scarlett, former deputy secretary of the interior under President George W. Bush, calls Ulmer a strong voice for public lands, science, and the environment.
“Fran is viewed as a problem-solver, someone who understands scientific complexities and who tries to recognize and balance the needs of advancing environmental protections while sustaining economic community,” Scarlett says. “She’s a person who tries to bring it all together while keeping environmental concerns up front and center stage.”
Having a convivial exchange on climate change is no sure thing in 21st-century America. One of the earliest actions of President Donald Trump’s administration was to remove climate data and scientific information from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. There has been no indication that the president intends to defund or dismantle the Arctic commission, but Trump announced plans in 2017 to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, in which 195 countries agreed to limit carbon emissions.
“We can make progress whether we are in the agreement or not in the agreement,” Ulmer says. “The importance of moving forward continues one way or another, with or without us, but I can’t help but think the world would make more progress if the U.S. was serious about its commitments.”
Many questions remain unanswered. Scientists aren’t sure about how quickly or how much permafrost is thawing in the Northern Hemisphere. Permafrost, found beneath 85 percent of Alaska, is a frozen layer of soil below the surface that doesn’t thaw, even in summer. It contains vast amounts of carbon from Ice Age plants that never decomposed. When it does thaw, permafrost releases methane, a pernicious greenhouse gas that promotes warming even more dramatically than carbon dioxide.
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Ulmer’s interest in the natural world dates back to her days growing up in Horicon, Wisconsin, a small city situated on the Rock River, a nearly 300-mile tributary of the Mississippi. Her grandfather, Louis “Curly” Radke, led the campaign for the public acquisition and restoration of Horicon Marsh, the largest cattail marsh in the United States.
At age five, Ulmer fished for bullheads and perch (“what you eat on Friday nights”) using a cane pole. Her parents were undertakers whose business doubled as a furniture store. Ulmer, a mezzo soprano, did her part for the family business, singing at memorial services.
“The first time I actually got paid for singing at a funeral, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is my career,’ ” she says. “I quickly decided that was not my career. But it taught me about being able to do something in spite of whatever emotional situation you’re in, and to be able to power through it.”
Childhood friend Nina Macheel connected with Ulmer in grade school over their mutual love of the outdoors.
“Her parents really got us outside, appreciating nature in a way that parents didn’t in those days,” says Macheel, a retired software developer who splits her time between Utah and Wisconsin. “They actively schooled us on how to appreciate the water, the plant life on the lake, or the waterfall. Or what was happening in the backyard.”
When it was time to choose a college, Ulmer enrolled at the UW because of its academic reputation. She majored in economics and political science and nurtured her love for singing, spending her senior year as a member of a USO musical group called On Stage Tonight, which performed in Iceland, Greenland, Labrador, and Newfoundland. She went on to the UW’s law school, propelled by President Kennedy’s 1961 call to public service. “Getting a law degree was less about practicing law and more about being able to use lawyering skills to help make the world a slightly better place,” she says. “But running for public office and being in politics was not ever part of my plan. It just happened.”
One of her greatest influences during law school was Professor Walter Raushenbush LLB’53, whose moot court sessions were by turns intimidating and invigorating. “By the end of that semester, I had developed self-confidence and the ability to think, and speak, under pressure,” Ulmer says. “Those kinds of skills have been useful in many different situations.”
Ulmer hasn’t strayed far from higher education. After eight years as lieutenant governor, she was a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and also served as chancellor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she also taught in the master’s program in public policy. This spring, she’s a visiting professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.
And then she will return to her beloved state, which long ago got into her soul.
“Alaska is something of a spiritual experience,” Ulmer says. “Not only is it incredibly beautiful, but it’s always a surprising place. It’s an increasingly rare thing to live in a place and literally walk forever on a trail and not run into another human being. Some people find that scary or lonely or too far from the comforts of a place like New York City, but I can’t imagine living anyplace else.”
Ulmer, whose husband of 36 years, Bill, died in 2013, keeps a cabin on remote Lemesurier Island near Glacier Bay National Park. She’s been known to scud off in her Klepper folding kayak to fish, be it on the Agulowak River or the Icy Strait. Her love of the outdoors extends beyond Alaska. She serves on the global board of The Nature Conservancy, and, as a board member and former chair of the board for the National Parks Conservation Association, she worked on the centennial celebration of the National Park Service.
“She really gets the big picture,” says the association’s CEO, Theresa Pierno. “She has a passion for these wild places. Being the visionary that she is, Fran recognizes that our future could be in peril if we don’t make the right decisions.”
For now, Ulmer’s work on the commission is not done. The group continues to collate its “daily update,” an electronic newsletter that provides a snapshot of ongoing Arctic research, public policy announcements, and a listing of important meetings. The commission also oversees three working groups: one on fostering renewable energy in the region; a second on water and infrastructure issues; and another that studies mental health and suicide in the Arctic.
“I’ve always tried to make whatever place I worked or whatever situation I was in a little better,” she says. “And I’ve always tried to identify things that are within the realm of the possible. I have never claimed to be a person who can make miracles happen. Those happen usually when a whole lot of people come together to make them happen.”
Andrew Faught is a regular contributor to On Wisconsin.
Published in the Spring 2018 issue
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