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Drawing Our Own Environmental Conclusions

BY AMOS ESTY
09.13.2005 | BOOKS

Where Mountains Are Nameless:
Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

by Jonathan Waterman
W. W. Norton, 2005
280 pages, $24.95

People do strange things in the Arctic wilderness. Jonathan Waterman, for example, has chased a herd of caribou like a wolf, accidentally discharged bear spray onto sensitive parts of his anatomy, and poked through "wondrous" piles of scat. But, as he can attest, the far north also inspires powerful emotions, whether it's a sense of awe or a hunger for profit.

Waterman made 18 trips to the Arctic between 1983 and 2002, trekking through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and kayaking down rivers, along the coastline, and past Prudhoe Bay. In his latest book, Where Mountains Are Nameless, Waterman draws on these experiences to add his voice to the clamor surrounding the fate of ANWR. The topic may be familiar, but Waterman does succeed, at least in part, in making an original contribution to the discussion.

In the first half of each chapter, Waterman recounts his excursions to the Arctic, describing in detail the landscape and wildlife. In the second, he tells the story of Olaus and Mardy Murie. The Muries may not be household names, but they did perhaps more than anyone else to create the refuge. By reviewing their struggle and eventual success, Waterman hopes to find lessons to apply to today's environmental battles.

Through narratives of his adventures, Waterman tries to explain what it is that makes the refuge worth protecting. His most rewarding trips were those spent alone, but, as in many accounts of solo journeys through isolated wilderness, he seems to be pretty miserable much of the time he's out there by himself. As if the midnight sun isn't enough to cause insomnia, there are wolves and bears to worry about, not to mention the possibility of getting lost or flipping his kayak into icy waters. Fortunately, Waterman has a sense of humor about his mishaps in the North. His constant low-level paranoia about grizzlies leaves him, as he says, "trying to look bigger and badder than a scared, six-foot-two, forty-one-year-old clutching a chili-pepper spray canister."

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Waterman grew more worried about protecting his favorite patch of backcountry. He turned to a conservation legend for advice. Mardy Murie, by now eighty-seven years old, had been active in environmental struggles for decades. By the end of his visit, Waterman decided to learn more about Mardy and her late husband, Olaus. Although she didn't offer any specific advice about preserving ANWR (other than recommending that he use the term "refuge" rather than the dull acronym "ANWR") Waterman left believing that "studying this woman's life would offer a key to understanding the refuge."

Olaus, born in 1889, first went to the Arctic in 1914 to obtain bird specimens for Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum. In 1920, he was sent to Alaska as an employee of the U.S. Biological Survey (later renamed the Fish and Wildlife Service) to study caribou. There he met Mardy, whose family lived in Fairbanks. In what seems like an almost implausibly romantic start to their lifetime of conservation activism, Olaus courted Mardy by imitating an owl call and then drawing a perfect sketch of the bird when it perched in a nearby tree. After their marriage in 1924, they spent much of the rest of the decade tracking wolves and caribou in the Alaskan Arctic.

Although Olaus became an expert on wildlife behavior, his research findings didn't always please his employer. His argument that wolves actually contributed to the health of large caribou herds contradicted the attempts of the Biological Survey to depict wolves as ravenous predators that decimated other animal populations. The government preferred to categorize wildlife based on its economic value, and, between 1915 and 1942, its policies resulted in the extermination of more than 24,000 wolves on federal lands.

In 1946, Olaus quit his job, tired of having his speeches and writings censored by government officials. (Today, of course, the administration would never consider censoring scientific findings.) The Muries continued to study wildlife and also began working to protect Alaska's wilderness. They met with small organizations, from hunting clubs to garden societies, and urged people to write politicians and get involved in local politics. Much of their success was due to Olaus's stellar reputation among Alaskans. He had "collected his specimens in subzero cold, he often mushed out alone, and he didn't hire guides." Locals therefore thought of him as one of their own. A longtime Alaskan, Mardy was also able to avoid being depicted as an outsider. On December 6, 1960, the years of hard work paid off -- Public Land Order 2214 created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But, as Waterman points out, "the fine print read that the range could be opened for oil and gas exploration."

Waterman calls the Murie's marriage a "fable," an apt description given his brief account of their lives. It is Waterman's goal, however, not to provide a complete biography, but to use the Muries as an example of what environmentalism should be. Certainly he does provide enough detail to make the story of Olaus's struggle with cancer and eventual death in 1963 genuinely touching. In interviews with Mardy in the years before her own death in 2003, Waterman learned the importance of humility when discussing environmental issues. Raging against those who seemed bent on destroying the refuge wasn't going to make it any safer.

Teaching a college-level course about the debate over drilling in ANWR provided Waterman a chance to put Mardy's lessons to the test. He and 15 students spent three weeks backpacking through the refuge and another week visiting Prudhoe Bay and studying economic and environmental issues. Waterman kept his opinions to himself and encouraged the students to gather evidence, ask questions, and make up their own minds. All but one eventually decided that no drilling should be allowed in the refuge. Waterman seems to hope that his book will give a much larger audience, most of whom will never make it to the Arctic, a similar opportunity. To this end, he includes maps, timelines, and statistics alongside his travel narratives. He's not too worried about the conclusions people will come to if they weigh all the evidence. As he puts it, "To know this place is to desire its protection."

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