Is wilderness a national treasure, similar in patriotic value to the Statue of Liberty or the Alamo, as Richard Nelson has proposed? In an increasingly flat world, is the importance of wilderness even broader than national boundaries, comparable to the human cultural achievement of Michelangelo’s David or his work on the Sistine Chapel? When someone asked Bob Marshall how many wilderness areas we need, he answered the question with one of his own, at a species scale: “how many Brahms symphonies do we need?”
I understand the view of Alaskans who want to develop the state’s natural resources to support job creation, a healthy tax base and other economic benefits. In concrete terms, this would include, for example, a young Inupiat man I chatted with in the crossroads of the Waldo Arms in Kaktovik, the northern gateway to the Arctic Refuge. He was intently focused on the well paying jobs he believed development of the arctic coastal plain could bring.
At the same time, I recognize the opposite side of the debate, including the views of some Gwich’in residents I had an opportunity to meet a few years ago in Arctic Village, the southern route to the Refuge. They generally opposed industrial development on the coastal plain of because of concerns about the impact on caribou herds and other animals, and the land itself, that are a central part both of their livelihoods and cultural traditions.
It is certainly not my intention to presume that I can speak even for my own cultural heritage at a group level, let alone for anyone else’s. My observations are strictly individual. It happens that on this particular question, I am personally opposed to industrial development on the coastal plain. The point I want to develop over a series of posts, however, is a broader one: it is that I have a moral right to my opinion, and to my advocacy, on this issue although I live neither in Kaktovik nor in Arctic Village.
In an earlier post, I asked: Whose land is it anyway? Woody Guthrie’s answer is that this land is your land and this land is my land, but do we really believe that in a deep subjective way? This question is especially acute for those, like me, who principally reside outside Alaska, let alone for those will visit it rarely or perhaps never at all.
In a comment on that previous post, a reader helpfully pointed out that the capital N in ANILCA stands for National. “When my neighbors rail on about too much federal intervention," he wrote, "or how all of Alaska rightfully belongs to Alaskans (how ever we define ourselves), I silently ask myself, ‘What part of National Interest Lands don't they understand?'”
I mentioned the Supreme Court’s Mineral King case, properly known as Sierra Club v. Morton, in another recent blog entry captioned Legal Roundup. This is one of those rare court decisions where the dissenting opinion is remembered long after the reasoning of the majority has been forgotten. In his dissent, Justice William O. Douglas addressed an issue about the legal standing of “environmental objects” (by which he meant rivers, mountains, forests and the like) with these words: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.”
In a future post in this thread of discussion, I will describe the Mineral King case in greater detail and try to explain its relevance to the separate issue of moral standing. That is the question that interests me, and I believe that the land ethic lies at its core.
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