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Adam Kolton, who helped fend off development in Alaska’s wild places, dies at 52

WASHINGTON — Adam Kolton, a Washington-based environmental lobbyist and legislative activist who crusaded for a quarter-century against industrial development of Alaska’s wild places, died April 26 at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 52.

The cause was complications from cancer, said his wife, Laura Kolton.

Through leadership roles with the nonprofit Alaska Wilderness League (where he was executive director for the last four years) and from 2002 to 2017 with the National Wildlife Federation, Mr. Kolton helped shepherd the national effort to block oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

As senior director of congressional and federal affairs at the wildlife federation, he also played an instrumental role in passage of the 2009 House climate bill that put a nationwide cap on greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change, although the measure did not pass in the Senate. He also championed the 2012 Restore Act, which steered 80 percent of administrative and civil penalties from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill to repairing the billions of dollars in environmental damage the industrial disaster wrought in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Kolton’s ability to forge broad coalitions and operate strategically allowed him to play an outsized role on the national stage despite the fact that the group he headed since 2017, the Alaska Wilderness League, had a staff of just 16.

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Known for his intensity — his voice built to a crescendo over the course of a speech, and he banged away so loudly at his keyboard that colleagues sitting far away could hear it — Mr. Kolton sought to unify the often-fractious environmental community while also enlisting other allies, including Christian conservatives, hunters and anglers.

Mr. Kolton established a war room in each organization where he worked, to rally staff and plot legislative strategy, at a time when environmentalists had more success in the courts than on Capitol Hill.

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"He said conservation community should be like NATO, " said Collin O'Mara, the National Wildlife Federation's current president and chief executive. "We all had to be running a common play."

Adam Michael Kolton was born in Westfield, N.J., on Feb. 20, 1968. His father was president of a packing and container business, and his mother was a psychotherapist. He received a bachelor’s degree in history and journalism from the University of Wisconsin in 1990.

While in college, his summer job as a busboy at Yellowstone National Park spurred his burgeoning interest in environmentalism.

Having worked at the Alaska Wilderness League from 1997 to 2002, he returned as its executive director in the fall of 2017 — just weeks before Republicans passed a tax bill that opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to fossil fuel development.

The battle over whether to drill in the refuge, which provides critical habitat for the Southern Beaufort Sea's remaining polar bears as well as for hundreds of thousands of migrating caribou and waterfowl each year, had occupied Capitol Hill for four decades. The government estimates there could be 7.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil on the coastal plain, though seismic testing has not been conducted there since the 1980s.

Drilling opponents won crucial legislative victories during the administration of President George W. Bush in 2004 and 2005, but they could not defeat the 2017 bill in the Republican-led Congress ordering the Interior Department to hold two lease sales in the heart of the refuge by 2024.

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Mr. Kolton, who helped launch a campaign in the 1990s targeting the major oil companies that were then considering drilling in the refuge, raised money to fund an effort targeting possible investors in any new exploration as well as the financial institutions that would underwrite drilling projects there.

He also helped establish a new environmental coalition, the Arctic Refuge Defense Coalition, to conduct field operations.

The Gwich'in, an Indigenous nation spread throughout 15 villages in northeast Alaska as well as Canada's northern Yukon and Northwest Territories, helped lead the drive targeting Wall Street institutions such as JPMorgan Chase and BlackRock.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a phone interview that Mr. Kolton journeyed to their villages and respected their traditions, including the prohibition on visiting the coastal plain in June and July when the Porcupine caribou herd was calving.

"It wasn't just work for him, he seemed to care," she said. "He respected our ways of life, our values."

Major U.S. and Canadian banks pledged not to underwrite drilling on the refuge, and the Trump administration managed to sell just 11 tracts for roughly $14 million, mostly to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state agency.

For Mr. Kolton, even social occasions provided lobbying opportunities. During a New Year’s Eve party in New York City in 1997, Mr. Kolton quizzed an aide to then-Representative John Tierney, Democrat of Massachusetts, about why her boss hadn’t signed onto the bill he was championing to protect Alaska.

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"We started talking politics," the aide, Laura Geer, recalled to the New York Times, "and he gave me his best pitch on the need to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I had no clue where this place was, but played along because I thought he was cute.''

They married in 2001. In addition to his wife, survivors include their two sons, Jacob Kolton and Samuel Kolton, all of Bethesda; his parents, Carol and Chester “Chet” Kolton, of Westfield; and a sister.

Mr. Kolton’s passion for the outdoors was rivaled perhaps only by his fervor for the New York Mets and New York Jets. When he first came to Washington after college, he co-founded the group Sports Fans United at a time when ticket prices to professional games were rising and team owners and players were increasingly at odds.

In September 1994 he testified before the House Judiciary Committee hearing amid a Major League Baseball strike that had shut down the season, arguing Congress should revoke the league's antitrust exemption.

"I'm not a lawyer, an expert in antitrust law," he began. "I'm a fan, and I have been all my life . . . Baseball fans are the only consumers in the country not afforded protection by either regulation or the federal antitrust laws. The antitrust exemption, the way we see it, is really a giant permission slip issued by the courts to let owners treat fans any way they want, without any consequences."

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While Congress failed to act, and the strike dealt a major blow to the Montreal Expos, it did have one silver lining: the Expos eventually relocated to the District as the Washington Nationals, prompting Mr. Kolton to organize regular team outings to the ballpark. O’Mara recalled him “humming — or worse, singing — that godawful ‘Meet the Mets’ song from the ’60s every time they were in town.”