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Alaska author expands wilderness focus in 'On Arctic Ground'

  • Author: Jillian Rogers
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 13, 2014

Debbie Miller's book "On Arctic Ground: Tracking Time Through Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve" has been out for a couple of years. But the Alaska teacher, author, explorer and conservationist continues making the rounds to public events and schools promoting the project. It's not necessarily the book itself that she's hoping will get a response, but the message of a healthy, natural world within of one of the most environmentally rich places on earth.

The book is a 143-page glimpse into the reserve through stunning images and thought-provoking essays covering a four-year span when Miller and a team of writers, photographers and scientists trekked and paddled through Arctic wilderness within the reserve.

The goal was, and is, to raise awareness about the largest swath of public land in the nation, the people who live there and ongoing development in the region.

While Miller, who has written 15 nature books, has explored and studied the wilderness and wildlife of the Arctic for more than three decades, she talks about her trek into the preserve like it was her first time seeing Alaska splendor.

"Every time I fly across Alaska, I'm still awestruck like the first time in 1975," Miller said. "It still feels so incredibly special and valuable. We just don't have that in other places."

During summer trips dedicated to living on the land in the name of book research, Miller was inspired by birds, wolves, caribou, bears, sheep — not to mention the sprawling tundra flowers and the vastness of it all.

"I feel lucky to have spent time up in the Arctic," she said. "I have so much respect for how people live up there, and I hope that whatever happens as we go forward in time that it is the best-case scenario for the people and their livelihoods and their culture."

The idea for the book hatched several years ago and stemmed from the Bureau of Land Management's first-ever management plan for the reserve, Miller said.

The BLM, which manages the reserve, had inked lease agreements and facilitated environmental studies there in the past, but there was not a full-scale management plan for the entire 23 million acres.

The process involved public hearings and plenty of discussion with stakeholders in all capacities. The idea to document the diverse and unique lands within the reserve was born around then and Miller got to work.

Miller has spent time exploring in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, but the thought of taking to the land and water in the petroleum reserve never really appealed to her. It hadn't even crossed her mind, actually.

"When you hear 'petroleum reserve,' you think of 55-gallon drums and drill rigs," she said. "I had never had much of a desire to study the area."

But once she went off on her first river trip, the mountains, wetlands and sweeping grasslands dotted with caribou took her breath away, she said. She was hooked.

"Once you get me going on this place, it's hard to get me to stop talking," she laughed. "It's remarkable. I think Americans and Alaskans need to know that this culturally rich area of our country represents the largest block of public land."

Rarely did Miller and her crew encounter other people. They would see activity as they got close to the developed oil sites and closer to Nuiqsut. But other than a couple of hunters from the region, they were on their own.

Until about a year ago, the entire reserve was open to drilling and exploration, with the exception of Teshekpuk Lake, she said.

As she made her way through the region documenting the expansive wildness, she spent some time in Nuiqsut, talking with community members to get an idea of how they feel about the reserve and development there.

The issue is a complex one, she said.

The Arctic is a big, wild, holistic, magnificent place with ancient cultures, varied landscapes, passionate people and unparalleled wildlife.

"To me, the ocean and the land are connected," she said. "They are important for the people and the wildlife and the wildness and they can't be separated. It's an incredibly rich area, but it is a sensitive area. And then you've got oil, which creates greenhouse gases, which is our main cause of climate change and rising temperatures.

"Alaska is caught between a rock and hard place," she added. "We love the beauty and wildness and cultures, but we've got this resource called oil that is the lifeblood of our economy."

More emphasis on wind, geothermal, solar and other alternative sources is a good start for a better Arctic, said Miller, who is also a founding board member of the Alaska Wilderness League.

But she knows that oil development provides jobs and money to people in the Arctic and the state and around the world at the same time.

"I just think we have better choices."

Developing in lower-risk areas that are perhaps not as biologically sensitive and drilling in the most environmentally safe manner is something that companies can afford to do, she said.

"Personally I'd love to see it stay wild, but people need jobs and we have an economy," Miller said. "I don't have blinders on and am not saying 'no development,' but there's no place like the Arctic. It's a treasure."

Her latest project, a children's book about Alaska's favorite fish, "A King Salmon Journey," was released in August. A device was deposited into a female salmon and Miller literally tracked its 2,000-mile journey upriver.

She is also starting research on a project focusing on Prince William Sound, around Whittier.

"It's a little different than the Arctic, but I'm enjoying learning about another crown jewel in Alaska," she said. "I could write about this place forever."

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