Caring About Alaska: Who Does and Why?

If a tree falls in our forty-ninth state, and no one is there to see it, a lot of people seem to think they'll hear it anyway.

  • Lisa Drew
  • Apr 01, 1996

The word sent a shiver through the passengers on the full bus traveling down Denali National Park's single dirt road. We were all on our way out of the park that morning last September, to the 12:30 Alaska Railroad train or to cars that would take us back to civilization, and we were all hungry for last glimpses of the park's famous wildlife.

Sure enough, on a ridge paralleling the road maybe 200 yards to the right, four adult wolves and five pups loped along on open tundra that glowed red with fall color. All the animals appeared healthy, glossy even, and their full gray coats looked ready for winter..

The shiver persisted, the sort of frisson that puts one's hair on end and holds it there. The wolves moved on, and we kept pace in the bus, amazed at our dazzling good fortune that the animals followed the ridge, allowing us to gape at the pups' gangly strides and to pick out the alpha male and female, regal in bearing.

After a few minutes, they all stopped, strung out along the ridge, the pups tumbling over each other. We stopped too, and driver Bill Perhach turned off the engine. The moment was one of complete satisfaction: This piece of Alaska was still wild, and nature was giving us one of her finest shows. But she wasn't finished with us yet: All of the animals, pups included, tipped back their heads and howled in overlapping calls, each hitting different notes. After the concert's opening lines, the pack howled again. And again. We were bathed in wolf song, and the train could leave without us..

I was in Alaska to ponder a question: Why should Americans far away--say, in Topeka, Kansas--care about threats to wilderness they may never visit? The question is far from idle: Most of the state's future lies in the hands of lawmakers elected by Topeka's voters (as well as those of Austin, Portland, New York and the rest of the nation). "Alaska is kind of weird that way," says Scott Feierabend, director of NWF's Natural Resource Center in Anchorage. "Since most of it is federal land, the state's major policy issues are going to be decided by the Lower 48.

To the dismay of conservationists in and out of the state, in the past year the three-man Congressional delegation from Alaska has led an uprecedented charge to open several of the state's wildest and most unique areas to development. One of the most high-profile examples has been an attempt by Congress to allow oil and gas drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). As of this writing, that move seemed destined to be foiled by a presidential veto, but drilling advocates were already promising to try again. In another big case, Congress has been trying to sidestep protections for the Tongass National Forest to allow a high rate of taxpayer-subsidized logging in sensitive areas of the rain forest.

A third push has been to increase visitation to Denali National Park, which is under pressure to allow more vehicles, build more roads and put luxury hotels deep in the wilderness. The demand comes in large part from the tourism industry, and it is most directly felt by the National Park Service--but Congress is playing a big role here, too, with a request for a new study of the issue from the Alaska delegation.

There is no doubt that many voters do care about conserving key parts of their last frontier. Last fall, when Congress tried to open ANWR's coastal plain to drilling, two polls found a majority of citizens opposed to the move. One Time/CNN survey in October found two-thirds of Americans against the drilling.

"The concept of a place that would stay unviolated appeals to me," says Dan Dehen, vice president of Dehen Knitting Company in Portland, Oregon. The firm is a member of the Alaska Coalition, a nationwide alliance of 161 groups large and small that want to keep ANWR untouched. "Just: Leave it alone," adds Dehen, who has never been to Alaska. That sort of public sentiment is nothing new. It has helped push through plenty of protective legislation over the years, including the milestone 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act and the landmark 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (designating about 100 million acres of new national parks, preserves, refuges, wild and scenic rivers and wilderness).

"When you take a posture of stewardship, you may start with your own backyard, but you're not restricted to it," says Ann Coburn, a Pittsburgh homemaker and self-described "professional volunteer" who has never been to Alaska. Coburn chairs a national affairs committee for the Garden Club of America, also a member of the Alaska Coalition. "We're advocates for plants, and in today's world that really has to mean you're an advocate for ecosystems as well," she adds. , she adds. <.p>

If my hypothetical Topeka resident does visit any wilderness area in Alaska, that place is likely to be Denali. The park is one of the state's most important tourist destinations, with about 500,000 visitors a year--and its crown jewel, Mount McKinley, is one of the most sought-after sights. The park's single, 89-mile dirt road runs through an extraordinary wildlife corridor. "There is not watchable wildlife like this anywhere else in Alaska," says bus driver Perhach, a longtime worker in the park.

Perhach's job gives him unique knowledge of the region. With few exceptions, only bus drivers navigate the narrow road through mountain passes and over glacial rivers near an active earthquake zone. And though much is known about the wildlife--a grizzly's home range in this part of Interior Alaska, for example, averages about 50 square miles--there are no baseline studies of the ecosystem or its tolerance for human impact. "All we have is the value judgment of people who have been here for many years," says Wally Cole, owner of Denali National Park Wilderness Centers, with facilities deep inside the park. "And the core of bus drivers are the best judges, really.”

Would we have seen the wolves if there had been more vehicles, more gawkers and faster traffic? Perhach's experience says no. "I think it's time someone says, 'Enough; the theater is already full,'" he concludes. "Enough!" And for the most part, that is a fair summary of four existing studies of the park. The most recent was the 1994 Denali Task Force Report for the Department of the Interior, which both Perhach and Cole worked on. Says Cole, "Simply put, a lot of land is needed here to sustain the animals, and we can't retain the wildlife values if we ribbon the area with roads and increase the traffic."

Still, the pressure for such development continues, and some of those who want to limit access find themselves accused of elitism. "To want limits is not elitism," says Cole. "Visitors have said for years, 'We're coming now because we're afraid it will be spoiled.' I hope that for my kids' generation, this place will not be spoiled."

In contrast to Denali's relative crowds, the remote coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge draws only about 1,000 hardy hikers and boaters every summer. Arguably more than any other place in the nation, ANWR is a wilderness of the imagination. Calling the coastal plain "a national treasure," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a report in August citing the region's "biological richness, undisturbed vastness and fragility as an arctic ecosystem." The narrow plain, framed by the Beaufort Sea and the Brooks Range 20 to 40 miles inland, holds the greatest biological diversity of the entire Arctic.

The region's main symbol is the Porcupine caribou herd (named for a river). The 150,000-strong herd migrates to the coastal plain every spring to calve, feed and seek ocean breezes for relief from mosquitoes. Despite oil-industry predictions that the caribou would not be harmed by drilling, the August FWS report concludes in part that "full development of the [coastal plain] would result in a major, adverse impact on the herd." Among the problems, according to the government biologists: Oil development would displace the herd from its preferred sites on the plain to the foothills. There, the forage is not as nutritious or plentiful, insects can't be escaped as easily and predators such as wolves and bears would be closer to vulnerable calves..

The most vehement objections to disturbing the caribou come from the Gwich'in Indians south of the Brooks Range, who have depended on the migrating Porcupine herd for their subsistence lifestyle for 20,000 years. "When you talk about the calving ground, you're talking about the herd itself," says Gwich'in spokesperson Donna Carroll. "Even in the times of famine, our ancestors never touched the calving ground." She adds, "For the Gwich'in, losing the Porcupine herd would be the same as the Plains Indians losing their buffalo herds. Saving the calving ground is the last chance Americans have to protect and do something positive for the Indians instead of destroying another culture, another way of life."

When the fight over ANWR reached a fever pitch last fall and winter,it was reminiscent of the battle over the Tongass National Forest that took shape nearly a decade ago. On a map, the Tongass occupies a deceptively huge swath of Southeast Alaska's panhandle. Two-thirds of its 17 million acres are bog, rock and ice--and most of its wildlife inhabits isolated pockets of old-growth rain forest on islands or separated by fjords and mountains. At least 52 unique species and subspecies of animals and plants have evolved in the broken-up habitat--including the Queen Charlotte goshawk, the Prince of Wales river otter and the Alexander Archipelago wolf..

In the late 1980s, environmental groups and grass-roots activists nationwide fought to reduce logging of the Tongass and bring about sound management of the ecosystem, or more accurately, its many separate chunks. Even some local residents helped lead the call for reform, and in one poll, 76 percent of Southeast Alaskans surveyed supported protecting key areas from logging and road building--even if the timber industry took a hit. Says grass-roots organizer Jeremy Anderson of the nonprofit Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), "The Tongass is central to the way of life here. We're talking about dinner on the table, salmon in the nets, favorite recreation spots, the places guides take tourism clients." The end result was the Tongass Timber Reform Act, and activists like Coburn of the Garden Club of America recall their work with satisfaction. "We made a strong stand against excessive lumbering," she says proudly. , she says proudly.

But under pressure from the Alaska Congressional delegation, Congress has been working hard to rewrite or find enough loopholes in the act to, well, drive through logging trucks. Despite government biologists' recommendations that logging be limited and wildlife corridors be spared, and despite an ongoing U.S. Forest Service planning process to take all of that into account, as of this writing, Congress was seriously considering several pieces of legislation that would thwart protections in the 1990 act..

Among the items on the lawmakers' wish list is raising the allowable sales quantity of Tongass trees to historic levels, barring more land set-asides for wildlife protection and requiring the Forest Service to provide enough timber to support 2,400 jobs in the region (they now number about 1,500). In late December, President Clinton vetoed an Interior Department appropriations bill that included several of those measures. In a strongly worded rebuff, he wrote that in the Tongass, the bill "would allow harmful clear-cutting, require the sale of timber at unsustainable levels and dictate the use of an outdated forest plan for the next two fiscal years." As for the communities in the Tongass region, most (though not all) are thriving despite decreasing numbers of timber jobs. Ideas for continued prosperity include SEACC's vision of more local timber-related jobs created by new, local manufacturing of products--rather than with more logging of trees that are shipped elsewhere for processing.

Practical arguments like that one have long fueled the public outcry over conservation of Alaska's wild areas--with questions such as whether taxpayers should subsidize Tongass logging and whether there's enough oil in the Arctic Refuge to justify drilling (for related statistics, see related "Dollars and Sense" boxes in this article). Still, for those who say they care about conserving the state's most unique wild places, the more visceral and philosophical reasons seem to be the most potent..

At a Congressional hearing last August, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt argued against ANWR drilling by invoking the "ancient pageant of wildlife moving through the seasons of an enchanted landscape" and predicting that drilling would "inevitably shatter the delicate balance of land and life into a thousand fragments, like pan ice in the spring breakup." He closed by saying, "Opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling is the equivalent of offering Yellowstone National Park for geothermal drilling or calling for bids to construct hydropower dams in the Grand Canyon."

Says Coburn of the Garden Club of America, "I view unique places like ANWR and the Tongass Forest as important cogs in a natural ecosystem that encompasses the entire Earth. It's the spaceship-Earth concept: How many rivets can we afford to lose? When will we say, 'That's enough?'" '

When I tried out my Topeka question on bus driver Perhach two days before we saw the wolves, he pondered it overnight before answering in writing: "Our former governor Jay Hammond used to note: Alaska's not just a great state; it's a state of mind. We all need our dreams, and Alaska provides the fuel to keep them going. Denali is an integral part. A symbol of the symbol." But on our way out of the park, after the wolves finished howling and one of them led the pups off into brush, and after two of the remaining adults bowed in submission to the third, Perhach turned to me beaming and said, "There. Those wolves are the best answer to your question. That's why Topeka should care."

Senior Editor Lisa Drew traveled to Alaska to report this article.

Watching Out for Alaska's Wetlands and Wildlife
With almost two thirds of the nation's wetlands, Alaska is rich in watery habitats. But many key wetlands--ranging from the remote coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to limited salt marshes fringing urban centers--are at risk from development. And conservation of wetlands is among NWF's priorities in Alaska. If you would like to stay informed on Alaska wildlife and environmental issues, write: Alaska Natural Resource Center, Box NW, National Wildlife Federation, 750 West Second Avenue, Suite 200, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

Dollars and Sense: Arctic Refuge Oil
Last summer, the U.S. Geological Survey halved its maximum estimate of the amount of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain from 11.67 to 5.15 billion barrels of oil. The U.S. General Accounting Office recently predicted that the minimum size for an oil field in the Arctic Refuge to yield a profit is 7 billion barrels. The most optimistic estimates of recoverable oil from the Arctic Refuge would add 0.4 percent to world oil reserves. Americans now account for 26 percent of annual world oil consumption. At least 7 billion more barrels of oil--and probably far more--still are expected to be extracted from Prudhoe Bay and other North Slope fields already open to development. That drilling could last at least until 2030, according to industry predictions. The nation will burn an extra 70 million barrels of oil a year with the increase in gasoline conumption expected from the nation's higher speed limits, estimates Harvard Business School energy expert Robert Stobaugh.

Dollars and Sense: Tongass Timber
A recent U.S. General Accounting Office study found that taxpayers spent $102 million more on logging in the Tongass National Forest in the past three years (1992-1994) than was recovered through timber sales. During the same time period, timber companies built roads in the Tongass estimated as costing $56 million, for which they were given purchaser road credits--or $56 million worth of the public's trees. Of the salmon caught commercially in Southeast Alaska waters, about 80 percent are spawned and reared in Tongass streams—and are highly sensitive to silt and other impacts from logging and road building. Roughly two-thirds of the timber logged from the Tongass (the percentage varies depending on fluctuating demand) is exported, mostly to Japan, in the form of logs or as pulp to be made into products such as disposable diapers and cellophane.

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