Conservation

Ambler Road

“The basis for conservation has to be love…

There are lots of different approaches to conservation, but I don’t think any of them will work unless there’s a personal connection between the individual and the natural world.”

Michael Soule

When I was offered to go on a back country patrol with the Park Service into the Gates of the Arctic I did not hesitate a second to say yes. Little did I know what to expect. I was told we would float the Kobuk for about a week through the Preserve. At the time I did not know exactly where the Kobuk was, and which part of the Brooks Range was covered by the Preserve. Over time I learned that Kobuk flows along the Southern slopes of the Brooks Range, home to grizzlies, moose, salmon, and sheefish. Access to the Preserve is mostly by bush plane, boat, or snow machines. There is no road access to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Therefore visitation and human impact to this area is rather limited. This is about to change.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) proposes to construct a new 211-mile-long gravel access road in the southern Brooks Range foothills to provide industrial access to the Ambler Mining District. The road would originate at the Dalton Highway near Prospect Creek and end at the Ambler Mining District, and would have no public access. The proposed project crosses state lands (61%) and Native corporation lands (15%), but also crosses public lands (24%) managed by the BLM and the National Park Service.

What is the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority?

AIDEA is a public corporation of the State of Alaska, created in 1967 by the Alaska Legislature “in the interests of promoting the health, security, and general welfare of all the people of the state, and a public purpose, to increase job opportunities and otherwise to encourage the economic growth of the state, including the development of its natural resources, through the establishment and expansion of manufacturing, industrial, energy, export, small business, and business enterprises…”

In other words, the state of Alaska proposes the construction of a road through a largely undisturbed wilderness to enable exploratory mining operations. No mining companies have signed on to this project. The state proposes a private road, that will cost upwards of 1 billion dollars (public money) to support mining operations for 50 years. After that…

The impact of the road and its use on caribou migration, salmon and sheefish spawning, permafrost and subsistence living are unclear. Given the history of mining operations it is to be expected that there will be detrimental effects. Show me one mine that has been good for the environment.

The question is, do we really need this road? Is this about the general welfare of the people, or is it about politics and economy growth, which is not sustainable? Do we value wilderness, or does the mighty dollar trump everything?

The Pebble Mine near Katmai National Park and Preserve and the Constantine-Palmer Mine near the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve are other projects that face similar issues. They are located in the vicinity of protected public lands and conservationist are more than concerned that these projects threaten the surrounding natural areas. None of these places see the numbers of visitors of say Yosemite or Yellowstone.

Imagine a 221 mile long industrial road through Yosemite Valley…

Goes back to the initial question: Do we really care only for things that we have seen first hand?

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Conservation

Rise

North of the Arctic Circle, June 21, 2019

Such is the way of the world
You can never know
Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow?

Eddie Vedder


Our dear planet turned for another remarkable week.

11.000 scientists declared a climate emergency.

The U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

All in the same week.

Where will this all go?

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Conservation

Wilderness № 2

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Brooks Range, Alaska

This is what Ansel Adams had to say in a Playboy interview (1983) to the question “What is the most critical fight now (regarding conservation and the environment)?”

To save the entire environment: wilderness protection, proper use of parks, breakdown of Federal operation of the parks in favor of private interests, acquiring new park and wilderness land, unrestrained oil drilling and mining on land and offshore, etc. First on the list now is that all the wilderness areas must be protected…

Only two and a half percent of the land in this country is protected. Not only are we being fought in trying to extend that two and a half percent to include other important or fragile areas but we are having to fight to protect that small two and a half percent.


Here is where we stand 25 years later.

The U.S. has 2.3 billion acres of land. 110 million acres have wilderness status, which is the highest form of protection. That’s 4.8 % of the total land mass.

Let’s put that into perspective. Just over 6 % of the total land mass are occupied by humans, meaning urban and rural developments. About 350 million acres are planted for crop, of which only 3 million acres are used to produce all the vegetables in the States.  Of those 350 million acres, 80 million acres are used for feeder corn and another 75 million acres of soybeans (95 percent of which are consumed by livestock). These two crops affect more of the land area of the U.S. than all the urbanization, rural residential, highways, railroads, commercial centers, malls, industrial parks and golf courses combined.

Add 788 million acres of pastures and 140 million acres are forested lands that are used for livestock grazing and you can see quickly where our priorities stand.

 

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Conservation

Gentle Giants

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Musk Ox, North Slope, Alaska

One of my hopes coming up here was to see musk ox. Several groups of this hardy animal had been seen near the Dalton Highway, but they remained elusive, when I traveled up north. Then, one drizzly afternoon, there they were, walking next to the road. Smaller than expected, moving with poise despite hordes of mosquitoes swarming around their heads. What does that eye tell you?

Inupiaqs call this “the animal with skin like a beard”. Musk ox live in the open tundra, where there is no place to hide, not from weather nor from predators. Apparently they have changed little since the last ice age and are well-adapted to the harsh living conditions of the arctic.

Musk oxen are more closely related to sheep and goats than bison and buffalo, if you ask a taxonomists. They disappeared from Alaska in the 1800’s, due to over-hunting, what else is new? In 1930, 34 musk oxen were captured in Greenland and reintroduced to Nunivak Island. From there musk oxen were transplanted to former habitats. Today, there are more than 3000 musk oxen found in Alaska. Considering the size of the state it is still a rare event to spot one of these gregarious animals.

Some folks call this another success story in wildlife conservation. I call it another sad example of the devastating effect of inconsiderate human behavior that lead to the extinction in the first place.

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Conservation

Y2Y

Kaskawulsh-2

Kaskawulsh Glacier, Yukon


I did not know what Y2Y was until I discovered “Walking the Big Wild” by Karsten Heuer. As a young man, Karsten decided to travel from Yellowstone to the Yukon Territory by foot, ski, and canoe, following the trails of grizzly bears in the most rugged and remote ridges and valleys of the Rocky Mountains. This epic trip was in support of the Y2Y Conservation Initiative raising awareness for the need of wildlife corridors.

The establishment of wildlife corridors is a recent concept in wildlife conservation. Here is my current understanding how we got this point. National parks were created more than 100 years ago for the enjoyment of the people. We decided what that enjoyment was. In places like Yellowstone it was to protect the unique thermal features from human development. In Yosemite it was to protect the valley and the surrounding mountains from settlers, ranchers, and farmers. Some wildlife was also considered part of the enjoyment, such as bears and elk. Bears were fed and bear cubs were kept as pets and shown off by park personnel. Elk herds were considered great assets for a park to have. However, the initial mission of the national parks was not to protect wildlife. Wolves, for example were exterminated by hunters, trappers, army, and park rangers in Yellowstone National Park. By 1929 the last wolf had been killed in the nation’s first park. Apparently wolves were not considered part of the enjoyment at that time.

Over time studies by Aldo Leopold and Adolph Murie convinced park managers that predators are essential parts of intact ecosystems. Wolves were protected, even reintroduced, against much objection from a number of stakeholders, mostly ranchers. It was assumed that setting aside 2-5% of our lands for national parks would be sufficient to create small islands of “undisturbed” lands, which could sustain intact ecosystems. That number was later revised to 25% and up, which was never going to happen. There is no tolerance for national parks of that size. Not in a time, where for the first time the size of national monuments is reduced per presidential decree.

As an alternative to super parks, wildlife biologists suggested to create corridors, where wildlife can safely travel between protected or suitable habitats. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is one if those efforts to create a network of parks and connecting corridors that provide suitable wildlife habitats connecting otherwise isolated populations and thereby preventing local extinction.

Karsten Heuer’s book is not just about the adventure of hiking, skiing, and canoeing for more than 2200 miles in what’s left of the Rocky Mountains wilderness. During his trip he gave presentations to the public and the press about the purpose of his walk and the intentions of the Y2Y Conservation Initiative. You can imagine the kind of reactions he got. You may also be surprised how much appreciation and support there was from landowners, locals, and hunters.

The Y2Y Conservation Initiative was founded in 1993. Karsten completed his walk in 1999. 20 years later the program is still going strong. There have been ups and there have been downs. In 2004, Y2Y was recognized by the Canadian Geographic Society with a silver medal. Some parks were expanded, a lot of land has been developed. Reserve networks have been proposed in other states, such as New Mexico, Oregon, and Florida. Unfortunately, it appears we are just (2018) about to loose the last herd of caribou in the lower 48s. For them, it was too little, too late. This is the world we will be living in: land development and other human activities reduce the habitat required for sustaining healthy populations of wildlife. What was present in large abundance in the past, can be seen now only in parks and reserves. Tomorrow, you may have to visit a zoo, or go to your library and read about it in books…

The work is not done. I can only recommend this book. If you like it, there is a follow-up adventure: “Being caribou”. The author and his wife spent their honeymoon following the great caribou migration in Alaska. I would suggest, read the book first, then watch the amazing documentary.

If you want to follow up on the ongoing work of the Y2Y initiative please visit www.y2y.net.

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Conservation

Car-free National Parks

“No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs–anything–but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.”

Edward Abbey


I know, this is not a popular proposal. But it’s worth a thought.  I am sitting out a snow storm in April, waiting for the storm to move out, so I can ride my bicycle into Yellowstone National Park. It is still winter up here. Nevertheless, the Park Service has opened the roads for bicyclists, two weeks before they open the roads to cars. That’s the one chance to experience the interior of the park on bike before the summer onslaught.

Unfortunately the road to Old Faithful is still closed, due to heavy bear activity. Apparently the grizzlies have come out of hibernation and are munging on bison that have succumbed in the thermal areas to winter starvation.

Later this year, millions of tourists will line the roads and observe wildlife from the safety of their cars. Some will get out and try to ride a bison or get a selfie with a bear cub…

Not the park Ed envisioned.

 

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