Hulahula River Trip

Hulahula River Trip

During a recent trip on the Hulahula River, in the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the naturalists in our group identified 32 types of wildflowers and 21 bird species.  This isn’t really my thing, but it is fun to watch others who are passionate about it.  The lists are pasted below for anyone who might be interested, along with a couple of related social media posts.

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Taking a Break

Taking a Break

After pumping out 72 blog posts like clockwork, I am going to take a break.  Accordingly, the main blog at www.NorthernPassages.com bids you farewell for now, but expects to return at some future date. 

In the meantime, I plan to keep up occasional, less structured, posts on social media – especially the Northern Passages page on Facebook.  These shorter and less formal missives are likely to include photos and brief trip reports as well as comments on anything else that interests me.  Have a great summer!

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The Idea of Wilderness

The Idea of Wilderness

Some Americans still live in close proximity to wilderness and spend most of their lives connected to it in one way or another.  But most of us do not.  For us, wilderness is a place to return when we can, however briefly and sporadically.

But we don't even need to visit in person to have the ability to transport ourselves to wilderness.  In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold asked:  “Is my share of Alaska worthless to me because I shall never go there?”

I love Ed Abbey’s indirect response to this question in Desert Solitaire:  “I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there.  We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.”

This is what Wallace Stegner had in mind when he wrote his famous Wilderness Letter in 1960.  "What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself.”

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Bombshells

Bombshells

It’s hard to comprehend the lunacy of it today, but Project Chariot was a serious proposal by the Atomic Energy Commission to “geographically engineer” a deep-water harbor on the northwest coast of Alaska by detonating a series of thermonuclear explosions.  That’s right:  hydrogen bombs.  What could possibly go wrong?

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Lessons from Salmon

Lessons from Salmon

The key theme of King of Fish, which the author thoroughly documents, is that the historic decline of salmon stocks has not occurred because people didn’t know any better or because they just didn’t care.  Instead, the depredation of the fishery happened despite the best efforts of thoughtful people and bodies politic to protect and preserve them. 

When fisheries management and conservation have clashed with financial interests in development and exploitation, the salmon have consistently lost – not every single time, but often enough that the incremental and inexorable accumulation of individual short-term decisions has eroded and whittled away salmon populations and habitats to the point that they collapsed.  There is a systemic imbalance in these interests that all but guarantees that the fish will lose whenever decision making is left to local interests.

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Legal Roundup 3 -- Pebble Mine

Legal Roundup 3 -- Pebble Mine

Over the last several years, the parallel goals of sustainable fishing, indigenous rights and wilderness values created a broad coalition opposed to large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed, which sustains one of the world’s last and greatest strongholds of wild salmon.

The conservation community was a key part of this coalition until last summer, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed to adopt restrictions that would effectively prohibit mining at the scale contemplated by Northern Dynasty, which owns the mineral rights to the Pebble deposit. 

At that point, many conservationists, within Alaska and around the country, quietly declared victory and, in essence, moved on.  This was premature. 

The regulatory proceedings are currently in legal limbo due to litigation brought by Pebble.  As a result, the EPA has not issued a final determination on the mining restrictions and, as of now, a federal court order bars the agency from taking any further action.  Despite breathless rhetoric on both sides, the mining proposal is not dead and the threat to the headwaters that sustain the Bristol Bay salmon fishery has not been removed. 

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Alaska Youth Engagement

Alaska Youth Engagement

Happy Earth Day 2015!  Last month, a group of about 15 high school students from all over Alaska traveled to Juneau for a week of meetings with the Governor and state legislators about a range of environmental issues.  This Civics and Community Summit has become an annual spring rite of passage for student delegates engaged with Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA).  

Programs like AYEA -- as well as Trailside Discovery, the Student Conservation Association, Outdoor Afro, City Kids DC, Muddy Sneakers, Summer Search and a host of others around the country -- are essential to building awareness of environmental issues and challenges across a broad spectrum of American society, which is increasingly urban in nature.  These programs are critical not just to the future of conservation but also to our society’s challenges with generational, racial and environmental justice issues.

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Tundra Land Grab

Tundra Land Grab

The Alaska House of Representatives approved a bill earlier this month that orders the United States government to hand over most federal land in Alaska to the state by the end of next year.  This would include national monuments, preserves and refuges, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  But the federal government could keep its national parks.

The tundra land grab has been tried before.  A similar attempt was made in 1982, prompting the Attorney General of Alaska to issue a formal legal opinion that the legislation was unconstitutional.  Bills of this nature are clearly unconstitutional -- and a colossal waste of legislative time and taxpayer resources.  

It is important to focus on the public policy merits of issues involving land use, resource extraction and development, conservation and wilderness --  all of which have pros and cons that can be reasonably debated -- and not get distracted by political sound bites about sovereignty, nullification and states' rights that are poorly grounded in history and law.  

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Sovereignty

Sovereignty

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is owned by and for the benefit of all of the citizens of the United States.  When the State of Alaska entered the federal union, it selected more than 100 million acres of land and was granted additional acreage to support education and medical trusts.  The lands in what is now the Arctic Refuge were not granted to the State.  Despite the overwrought rhetoric of politicians, Alaska state sovereignty is simply not relevant to the current proposals that Congress designate critical areas of the Refuge, including its coastal plain, as wilderness. 

Local politicians and business interests will always be tempted by the siren songs of temporary employment and tax revenues.  This is an inherent structural bias that tilts local interests in favor of development.  Which is precisely why long-term national interests need to be protected by federal decision-making about the lands that we all own together. 

Decisions about where to develop, and where to protect, can be reasonably debated.  But, please:  keep the red herring of state sovereignty out of it.

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Legacy

Legacy

All those in favor of an open pit mine in the Grand Canyon, please raise your hands!  Really?  No one?  How about fracking in Yellowstone? 

We have rarely set aside areas of potential development for esthetic, cultural, human rights or similar reasons.  In the limited, but iconic, instances where we have done so, such as Yellowstone National Park (1872) and Grand Canyon National Park (1919), very few of our contemporary citizens look back on the action now with deep regret. 

ANILCA already protects the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge from development.  The political question is whether our legacy will be to make that protection permanent, to leave it in a state of limbo, or to revoke it.  I am fairly certain what the visionaries who protected Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon would have to say about that, and I am equally sure that future generations will thank us if we follow their example..

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Hedges and Priorities

Hedges and Priorities

At least with currently imaginable technologies, we will continue to need the high energy density of petroleum to power massively consumptive products like jet engines.  Other power sources just don’t pack enough punch to put a plane in the air and keep it there. 

This puts a near-term premium on using other energy forms, such as electricity generated by coal or nuclear fuels, or even less dense renewable sources like solar and wind generation, to power other uses that don’t have such massive requirements.  Establishing priorities along these lines strikes me as a blindingly obvious hedge against having our collective tank run dry.

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Limits

Limits

We have reached this point of civilization through exploitation of resources, especially petroleum and mineral extraction.  We started tens of thousands of years ago with the transformation of copper and bronze into tools and weapons, and we now use rare earth minerals in cell phones.  Power consumption is everywhere and permeates everything we do, every day, even in the most remote corners of the earth.

Most of these resources are nonrenewable in any practical sense.  We can debate how long they will last, when “peak oil” will or has been reached, but not the basic point that they are finite.

Global CO2 and other greenhouse gases have risen to levels that are impacting the environment.  As with the finitude of fossil fuels, we can debate when the tipping point to a real climate crisis will be reached (if it hasn’t been already), but we cannot responsibly doubt that there are limits to the earth’s carrying capacity for greenhouse gases without severe implications for the future quality of human life on the planet.

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Companions in the Wild

Companions in the Wild

I admire and respect solo hikers and others who desire to be alone in wilderness.  For me, however, it is through social interaction with wilderness that we make it a human encounter, becoming not simply passive observers of the wild, but active participants in it.  In doing so, we connect with a deep and integral part of our own nature, rekindling bonds of culture and community that our ancestors have experienced since the dawn of time.   

We can only hope that our descendants will have similar opportunities to come together in the shared experience of wilderness and to give full expression to our natural place in it.  If we allow that to slip from our grasp, an important part of our human heritage will be lost as well.

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