ANWR's coastal plain not 'desolate' as Alaska's Don Young claims

Carl Donohue
Aerial photo of Arctic coastal plain, Alaska, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Carl Donohue photo
Porcupine Caribou herd, migrating across the coastal plain, Section 1002, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR, Alaska.
Carl Donohue photo
The Beaufort Sea along the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Arctic Ocean sea ocean, after spring breakup, rests on the beach. Melting permafrost in the bluffs signals warming temperatures.
Carl Donohue photo
A musk ox in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Carl Donohue photo
A small pond near the Canning River on the coastal plain catches a the sky's blue reflection.
Carl Donohue photo
Alaska cotton grass on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
Carl Donohue photo
Cotton grass and a small kettle pond near the Canning River, Section 1002, Arctic national Wildlife Refuge, ANWR, Alaska
Carl Donohue photo
Debris in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Carl Donohue photo
An arctic fox in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Carl Donohue photo
Aerial photo of Arctic coastal plain, Alaska, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Carl Donohue photo
A large glacial erratic rests on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Section 1002, ANWR, Alaska.
Carl Donohue photo
A swan in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
Carl Donohue photo

The debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is always a lively one, and so it shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone to hear about the latest fiery melée on the Hill. During a recent House Natural Resources Committee "drilling Arctic National Wildlife Refuge" hearing, Alaska Representative and drilling proponent Rep. Don Young yells at an invited speaker, Dr. Brinkley, "I'll call you anything I want to while you sit in that chair" followed by a disdainful "you just be quiet." Watch the sparkles here.

What caught my attention, though, was not simply the comedic theatrics of the political posturing, but the fact that an elected representative, an Alaskan, refers to a place like the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as "really nothing," a barren, desolate wasteland.

Surely we no longer live in an era where the word "wilderness," places of their own true character, is so continually equated to some thing we need to improve upon. Once upon a lonely time, "wilderness" implied the ferocious and savage, or feral and untamed; the wild shouldn't frighten us any longer. This antiquated, fearful perspective expressed by Mr. Young is only one step removed from the (hopefully) obsolete fables once clung to by serfs and village-folk many centuries ago, who saw only the forest primeval, filled with fearless, beastly slayers and fiendish savages. The forests of the North aren't filled with howling denizens and monsters, and the coastal plain is not a desolate wasteland. The coastal plain is an expansive and uncultivated wilderness; a beautiful wild land of raw ecological riches and natural grace.

It's a sad and anachronistic myth that holds the natural world, the land we walk with, the air we breathe, water we drink, the earth that we live upon, as barren. It's incredibly disrespectful to people such as the Gwich'in, who've lived in the North for centuries, who call the coastal plain "the sacred place where life begins," to refer to their homeland as nothing, as a wasteland. What is Mr. Young actually saying about these people?

"Wild" means free-willed, undefined and unbounded by others. It means here that the land isn't molded to fit our view of what it should be, but remains a place we can enjoy and learn about from itself, a place we can experience on terms other than our own. That's an immeasurable value, I believe, and not at all a "wasteland."

It's said that we see through our own eyes, and that the vision we have of the world outside reflects the vision we have of ourselves. Mr. Young must be an unhappy and desolate person. I've traveled extensively on, across and over the refuge's coastal plain, and I see myriad, fantastic natural landscapes, unshaped by our own modern world. Endless fields of Alaska cotton, streams and rivers that meander freely forever. Caribou herds in the tens of thousands migrate without restriction, without interference, as they wish. Seemingly infinite flocks of migratory birds do the same. Living much the same, I'll point out, as many Alaskans seek to. That's what wilderness is.

This is an important point; the "wild" in "Wildlife Refuge" reflects precisely the kind of free-willed, unregulated lifestyle that so many Alaskans claim to pursue. What great value there must be in a landscape that is such a model for our own lives.

When I visit the coastal plain, I see freedom, wildness, an unregulated, open landscape. I can camp where I choose. I can walk any direction I seek to. I can camp as many nights as I want to. That's what wilderness is, and that's what we lose when we hand a place over to extraction and development, particularly such industrial development as oil drilling. Already I've noticed the encroaching rigs at Point Thomson, heard the rumbling of those rigs, seen the increasing number of helicopter flights over the plain as geologists and engineers seek out potential new well sites.

Mr. Young also claims the coastal plain is not the heart of the refuge, in which case I'd ask him to point out exactly what might then be the heart? The mountains? I've spent months in the Brooks Range, and I assure you the ecological pulse on the Refuge is the coastal plain; there's simply no comparison between the diversity and abundance of wild animals, birds and plant life on the rich coastal plain and the much more sparsely populated Brooks Range. We might go weeks on end in the mountains and see very little in the way of wildlife. But we hit the coastal plain, and we see caribou, muskox, wolves, arctic and red fox, snow geese and tundra swans, loons and terns and gulls and long-tailed ducks, shorebirds in the hundreds, and wildflowers, grasses and plants in bloom in every direction.

The reference to the "tiny footprint" of the drilling plan is similarly hollow. The actual footprint itself may well be the equivalent to a hair on your head, or a postage stamp on a football field, or a pinprick on a newspaper page, or any other similarly meaningless analogy drilling proponents care to make. If that pinprick goes into your eye, the outcome can be permanent, disfiguring and a tragic.

Embedded within this commentary is a slideshow of 13 images from the coastal plain; take a look and decide for yourself how barren and desolate the country is.

Carl Donohue is a wilderness advocate, backcountry guide and photographer who spends months out of the year exploring the wild Alaska. He considers the lessons he learns in the wilderness some of the most valuable experiences in his life, and is grateful for each of them. He is currently working on a book on Alaska's Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. More information about his work is available at alaskanalpinetreks.com and skolaiimages.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.