Group wants public refusal to visit until ‘war’ on wildlife is ended

By Doug O’Harra, Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage, Alaska (Published: April 28, 2005)

After “Today” show host Katie Couric exclaimed on air Tuesday morning that she’d love to visit Alaska to catch a salmon, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich issued an official invitation and Tenth & M Seafoods donated two smoked Cook Inlet sockeye fillets to whet her desire.

But a Connecticut-based animal rights group has asked Couric to stay away until Alaska stops killing wolves and bears.

Friends of Animals faxed a letter to Couric on Wednesday, urging her to join a national tourism boycott over the state’s predator control programs and hunting policies, said Susan Russell, the group’s information officer. She e-mailed a copy of the letter to the Daily News.

“We’re trying to make an impact on Gov. (Frank) Murkowski, that his current policy of decimating predators and wolves and grizzlies — to destroy animals so that humans can kill other animals — is going to impact badly on the state,” said Russell, in a phone interview. “The boycott has worked in the past, and we’re going to double our efforts to make sure it works again.”

Neither Couric or “Today” show officials could be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. But reaction in Alaska ranged from incredulity to disdain.

“Friends of Animals doesn’t understand Alaska or Alaskans, and the governor won’t be pressured by any Outside special interest group,” said Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg. “We’ve been hearing threats of boycotts for the last two years and, quite frankly, they haven’t been very successful.”

Tenth & M owner Skip Winfree said the group was trying to turn an “excellent gesture” by Begich into a “rotten apple.”

And Begich said he just wants Couric to know that Anchorage can be the gateway to her Alaska dream.

“We’re a destination. People want to come because there’s no place like it,” he said. “Katie Couric wants to come here. I want to get her here. She wants to go king salmon fishing. I think that’s great. That’s our focus.”

The unlikely collision between Anchorage civic PR and the intractable controversy over Alaska predator management began when Couric and co-host Matt Lauer were chatting about a new segment that aims to take “viewers on an adventure to experience the top 50 things everyone should get to do before they die.”

Included in an online list of potential trips are things like “Feed sharks,” “Visit the oval office” and “Explore the Alaskan wilderness.”

Couric said the Alaska adventure topped her list. “I’d like to go salmon fishing in Alaska, you know at the height of the season when they’re jumping out of the water,” she told Lauer, according to a story posted online by KTUU, the Anchorage television station that carries the show for NBC.

“I have never been to Alaska, and I think that would be beautiful,” she added.

From an Alaska tourism marketing point of view, such a positive statement by a popular TV personality during the peak of morning broadcasting is no trivial banter.

A 30-second commercial on the “Today” show costs $65,000 to $70,000 and reaches almost 6 million viewers, including about 11,000 people in Anchorage, said Nancy Johnson, KTUU marketing director.

That Couric’s comments came spontaneously makes them even more valuable and influential, Johnson added. “Content can’t be bought.”

Now Friends of Animals would like Couric to issue a different statement — that she won’t go to Alaska on a personal visit until Murkowski ends predator control of wolves and bears, Russell said.

“If the “Today” show would like to go and cover what’s happening to Alaska wildlife, the war on Alaska wildlife, then we’d love to talk to them,” she added. “If they want to go to Alaska as part of some travel show, then we don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Begich, ever the diplomat, said that all sides of the controversy are welcome in Anchorage, including staffers from Friends of Animals.

“I appreciate their views from Connecticut, but we have a great city here,” he said. “If they want to come up, I’ll get them out king salmon fishing too.”