Saving America's Last Great Wilderness

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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a natural treasure, yet five decades after its founding it remains vulnerable.

By George B. Schaller

© Carr Clifton / Minden Pictures

© Carr Clifton/Minden Pictures
It was still light at 11 p.m. in northeastern Alaska on June 26, 1956. We had flown in to the last lake in the upper Sheenjek Valley to establish our camp. The Sheenjek River flows south through the foothills of the Brooks Range; to the north, beyond 9,000-foot peaks, the Arctic slope extends to the Beaufort Sea. Grey-cheeked thrushes sang and a pair of mew gulls called by the lake as we set up our tents. Restless and inspired by a limestone peak behind camp, I started up toward its summit. One and a half hours later I had climbed the 2,500 feet to the top. Standing alone on the peak, at the convergence of rock and sky, there was nothing to distract from the beauty around me. Mountains extended to the horizon, those toward the north capped with glaciers and snow. No buildings disrupted the landscape and the only roads were those made by caribou.

Far below among the patchy spruce I could see the white dots of our tents. Olaus Murie, famous naturalist and president of the Wilderness Society, was there with his wife, Mardy, and so were Brina Kessel, an ornithologist from the University of Alaska, and Bob Krear, like myself a graduate student. Sponsored by the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society) and the Conservation Foundation, we had come to the Sheenjek valley to study its natural history and to absorb its “precious intangible values,” as Olaus phrased it. But our main aim was to gather the kind of information that would ultimately lead to the protection of this, the last great wilderness in the United States. I descended from my mountaintop and returned to camp at 2:30 a.m.

© George B. Schaller

 © George Schaller

A progression of perfect days followed as we hiked, observed, took notes and shared what we had seen. Brina concentrated on birds and by summer’s end had tallied 85 species, among them gyrfalcon, red-throated loon and golden plover. Bob was excellent at fly fishing, and supplied me with grayling to measure and age, and camp with delicious meals. Olaus taught me to identify the contents of grizzly scats—mainly grasses and roots—and of wolf scats with the hair of caribou and ground squirrel. “Gee, this is wonderful,” he would say, pulling apart a scat, and showing that one must not just glance at something but look deeply into it.

I collected a sample of everything I could pluck or grab, delighted with the variety of plants and animals around me. My plant press ultimately held 138 kinds of flowering plants—delphinium, lupine, anemone, buttercup and rhododendron, to name just a few—and 40 kinds of lichens. My alcohol-filled vials preserved 23 spider species and many insects, including three kinds of mosquito that had come to inspect me. I trapped mice and lemmings for the University of Alaska museum. Several Gwich’in came from Arctic Village, 40 miles away, to visit our camp, among them Margaret Sam. When 50 years later we had lunch again, her main memory was of me sitting at the camp table skinning mice and stuffing the skins with cotton.  

We all admired the Muries for their curiosity and responsive heart to everything around them. By word and example they stressed that conservation depends on science but that, just as important, it is a moral issue—of beauty, of ethics and of respect and compassion toward all living beings. Their wisdom has remained with me always.

Olaus urged me to explore the country, which I did by wandering off alone for a week to the headwaters of the Sheenjek. There at the crest of the Brooks Range, close to glaciers, was a band of a dozen magnificent Dall sheep rams. I photographed the glaciers, not realizing that some day these scenes would help document the impact of climate change. To the north was the coastal plain where polar bears den and 180,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd gather on the greening tundra to have their young. That area is the biological heart of the region, one the Gwich’in have named “the sacred place where life begins.” Snow fell as I descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Chandalar and from there back east to the Sheenjek.

I was asleep on a river bar when at 5 a.m. grunts, churning gravel and rushing water startled me awake. A herd of caribou flowed down the shadowed valley toward me. I lay still as wave after wave of animals poured past me, some within 60 feet. In early June many caribou had traversed the Sheenjek on their way to the Arctic slope to calve. Now, on July 16, they were back, a wild river of life. The Porcupine herd defines this Arctic ecosystem with its migrations, and is a symbol of this wilderness.

Like the earliest bird migrants, we left the Sheenjek in early August. We had marveled at the remarkable diversity of life, and now had to fight for its protection. Olaus and the Wilderness Society initiated a campaign to safeguard northeastern Alaska, and they were joined by many Alaskans. A few years earlier, in 1952, I had seen the first tentative oil development on the Arctic Slope just west of Prudhoe Bay. With vague concern I wrote Secretary of Interior Fred Seaton on November 25, 1957, that unless the area is protected it “may well in future years resemble one of the former Texas oil fields.”

On December 6, 1960, Seaton issued the order establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Range, 14,000 square miles in size. We were jubilant. At that time I was still idealistic and naïve, assuming that any protected area is safe from exploitation. But with the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the completion of an 800-mile oil pipeline south to the coast in 1977, the tranquil Arctic range became the center of one of the great conservation battles of the century, not only over land but also over the fundamental values of American society.  

In 1980, President Carter doubled the size of the Arctic range to 31,000 square miles, an area almost as large as Maine, and it was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was designated as a wilderness—except that 2,300 square miles of the coastal plain, named Area 1002, were excluded by Congress pending review because of potential oil.

My disquiet of the late 1950s hardened into certainty that politics, greed and lack of social responsibility would destroy this unique corner of our planet unless prevented from doing so. Beginning in 1987 British Petroleum and other oil companies lobbied hard for drilling rights in the Arctic refuge. George H.W. Bush made drilling there the centerpiece of his energy policy. Never mind that no one knew how much oil was beneath the refuge. The best estimate was 3.2 billion barrels, a mere 200 days of U.S. consumption. Oil conservation through raising vehicle mileage standards and by funding development of alternative energy sources was not on the agenda. Drilling advocates claimed that drilling in the Arctic refuge would damage only 2,000 acres—but this didn’t include the many roads, gravel pits, pipelines, production facilities, housing and other infrastructure associated with oil extraction.

National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska

The battle for Area 1002 continued throughout the 1990s. Some members of Congress targeted the refuge and toyed with various means of destroying it. A budget resolution in 1995 assumed $1.4 billion in revenue from oil leases, but President Clinton vetoed the entire federal budget because of this provision. The Wilderness Society, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife and others urged President Clinton to declare Area 1002 a national monument, but sadly he failed to respond.

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, his administration became essentially a subsidiary of big business and Big Oil, and in this it was abetted by various members of Congress. A defense authorization bill was introduced that would mandate drilling in Area 1002, and a House committee passed an Energy Security Act with the same provision. Backdoor legislation was attempted by attaching drilling provisions to unrelated bills. The 110th Congress tried this tactic 20 times, and each required an Arctic shootout between House and Senate. Fortunately none passed.

Instead of passing realistic energy conservation laws, the petro-politicians used cynical scare tactics to confuse the public: Lack of Area 1002 oil would increase electricity shortages, raise gasoline prices, slow the economy and endanger national security at a time of war. The implication is that those who oppose drilling are unpatriotic. On the contrary. Patriotism consists of ignoring propaganda and fighting the proponents of plunder and pollution with integrity on behalf of America’s future.

Two-thirds of the American public opposes drilling in the Arctic refuge, including the Gwich’in of Arctic village. They say simply: “The caribou are not just what we eat, it’s who we are.” They know that their culture depends on the caribou that calve in Area 1002. The Inupiat at Kaktovik were all for drilling and its financial bounty, until they realized that an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea could ruin their subsistence culture of fishing for Arctic char and hunting for bowhead whale. Now over half have reconsidered their position.

Late in 2007, George W. Bush rushed through a plan that would allow Shell Oil Co. to drill offshore near Kaktovik. The drilling would be directional and require no extensive development on land, it was claimed. A federal appeals court halted the plan because of lack of scientific data. Yet in October 2009 Shell received a permit for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea. (Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently suspended drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.)

That so many of us over the decades have had to fight again and again to preserve the Arctic refuge, that after half a century it still remains vulnerable, fills me with frustration and indignation. Why should we constantly have to argue about saving a place of such beauty and intrinsic value? Those who condemn the area should have to explain truthfully why it should be sacrificed with such casual arrogance to special interests. The Arctic refuge retains its ecological integrity and, at a time of rapid climate change, it offers a unique natural laboratory to compare with other northern areas. But this gift of an unspoiled landscape needs no such scientific justification: it must be preserved for its own sake as an icon of America’s natural heritage and our role in nature.   

When the 50th anniversary of the Murie expedition approached, the Murie Center in Wyoming suggested a visit back to the Arctic refuge. I happily agreed. Jonathan Waterman, an author who has made many journeys through the refuge, agreed to organize our return in 2006, funded by the National Geographic Society and Patagonia Company. Three graduate students came with us: Martin Robards and Betsy Young from the University of Alaska and Forrest McCarthy from the University of Wyoming. Gary Kofinas, a professor at the University of Alaska, also joined the team.

First we descended the Canning River in rafts from the Brooks Range across the western edge of Area 1002 almost to the Beaufort Sea. There were scattered bands of Porcupine caribou, which now number an estimated 120,000, fewer than in the 1950s. We met a bear, too. There were also many birds we had not seen on the Sheenjek, such as ruddy turnstone and parasitic jaeger. A remarkable total of 180 bird species have so far been recorded in the Arctic refuge. Above all, the tundra still stretched in all directions without building or pipeline: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken good care of it. By contrast, that March of 2006 the main pipeline at Prudhoe Bay leaked 270,000 gallons of oil onto the tundra.

Later we flew up the Sheenjek Valley to Last Lake. With relief and delight, I found that little had changed. A pair of mew gulls still claimed the lake. By comparing photographs of our old camp site with the spot today, we found that, although a few of the spindly spruce had died, others survived. McCarthy’s task on this trip was to locate places that had been photographed in the past 50 to 100 years and compare these with today. He found that glaciers have retreated and shrubs have invaded areas that were formerly tundra. When we spoke with Gideon James, a Gwich’in elder, about such impacts of climate change, he provided important insights. “Vegetation grows thicker,” he said, and caribou don’t go to these places now; the ice of lakes is thinner so “people don’t go out into the middle no more”; and there are now wildfires on the tundra, unlike the past. And, he noted, a blue bird was for the first time seen at Arctic Village.

Five decades after my first ascent, our whole team climbed the mountain by camp. As we sat on the summit among cushions of yellow-flowered saxifrage, I was elated beyond measure. The Muries’ vision for this place—a wilderness that was still pristine and tranquil—was being passed on to a new generation. Robards rightly noted, “How magical to return after 50 years and find things the same.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the refuge’s establishment—and it is also a year of decision. Only constant vigilance, commitment and clarity of purpose have prevented this natural treasure from yielding to the forces of destruction. It represents America’s compact with wildness and wilderness better than any other place. President Obama must now invoke his powers to declare the coastal plain, Area 1002, a national monument. Or Congress can declare the coastal plain a wilderness area and have President Obama sign this into law.

Mardy Murie spoke for all of us when she wrote: “I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can let these wildernesses pass by—or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.”

George B. Schaller is senior conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and vice president of Panthera. His studies of gorillas, big cats, pandas and other mammals during six decades of field work around the world—and his efforts to protect these creatures—have been the subject of many books, journal articles and magazine pieces, and earned him many awards, including the 2008 Indianapolis Prize. 

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