Artic Sancturay: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
“The refuge reaches whole and unbroken from the Arctic Ocean’s wash of blue, silver, and gray in the north to the greens and browns of the boreal forest in the south. Climbing as tundra up the North Slope to the foothills of the Brooks Range, it crests in glacier-clad peaks of the Continental Divide that settle southward into sparsely treed taiga. The refuge’s enormity embraces all ﬁve arctic and subarctic eco zones, each harboring habitats that together sustain an abundance—a profound fecundity—of plant and animal life. Stitching these zones into a whole are the refuge’s wild rivers, which run north from the divide to the Arctic Ocean or south to the Bering Sea. In silty jades, muddy browns, and intense, rock-stained reds, they braid their way unimpeded by dams or concrete channels across this unyielding wilderness.” Laurie Hoyle, excerpt from Arctic Sanctuary: Images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest and most ecologically diverse wilderness area in the United States. It is the only national conservation area to encompass a complete range of arctic and subarctic ecosystems including coast, tundra, mountains, taiga and boreal forests. A network of 18 major rivers, two of North America’s largest lakes and a series of warm springs support a wide variety of plant species unique to the Arctic region. The Refuge is also home to the most diverse population of wildlife in the circumpolar north, including polar, black and grizzly bears, Porcupine caribou, Dall sheep and golden eagles, to name a few.
Spanning more than 19 million acres – an area roughly the size of North Carolina – the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest and best known of the 500 wilderness refuges in the United States. With no known introduced species, the refuge provides scientists an exceptional baseline for study of undisturbed eco zones, biodiversity and natural processes. As a last frontier, it is unencumbered by human interference, and still driven by ancient evolutionary energies. To date, it remains revered as one of the United States’ most treasured assets.
If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.
Although most people know about the Refuge, it is visited by fewer than 1,200 annually on average due to its remoteness. With the exception of a small Inupiat population at Kaktovik, a town located on the north shore, and Gwich’in Indian’s Arctic Village on the southern boundary, there are no human developments anywhere within its boundaries.
Often considered the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is also rich in untouched natural resources. With escalating demand for domestic oil sources, clean water shortages worldwide and the advent of new arctic waterways opening due to climate warming, it is becoming more and more vulnerable to development. During the last few decades, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been the subject of heated congressional debates met with pleas of compassion from environmental and wildlife advocates who have battled for its preservation. Sought by those who see its financial potential, it has narrowly evaded would-be exploitation.
When wilderness photographer Jeff Jones and his wife Laurie Hoyle accepted an invitation to go fishing on the northern slope of Alaska’s Brooks Mountain Range in 1982, they could not have anticipated that the adventure would inspire a project of monumental scope culminating nearly three decades later in the publication of a book and major exhibition of photographs coinciding with a nationwide celebration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 50th anniversary. Awestruck by its pristine wildness, Jones vowed to do whatever he could to raise awareness about the Refuge to encourage its continued protection. Jones’ new book, Arctic Sanctuary: Images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge achieves just that. The voluminous collection of landscape photographs is a pictorial odyssey that pays homage to the diversity and raw beauty inherent in the Refuge.
“I could not have imagined the vastness of the wild land before seeing it for myself. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense that we are just a small part of something so much greater than ourselves,” Jones recalls about his first impression of the coastal plain. “We have an amazing and rare opportunity to keep such a huge and diverse piece of land intact, free from human interference. I realized that doing what I do best, photography, I have a chance to make people aware of not just its beauty, but also its importance.”
By stark contrast to photographs Jones took of the North Slope oil fields and gravel beds in and around Prudhoe Bay west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with grant funding from the Alaska Wilderness League, Arctic Sanctuary images depict pristine, majestic wild lands that are ecologically whole and untamed by technology or any human interference whatsoever – preserved in the stillness as if a gift for future generations to bear witness to their very existence.
“Above all, the value of the refuge is symbolic: it is living proof of our respect
and ability to restrain ourselves, acknowledgment of the fact that we share this planet and depend on it, human and other-than-human beings. As such, its preservation becomes more a moral imperative than just a common sense.”
Jones took his first photographic expedition to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1990. Since then, he has returned to the Refuge more than a dozen times in all seasons, braving inclement weather and rugged living conditions. With no roads anywhere, Jones traveled into and out of the Refuge via rugged bush planes equipped for field landings. While inside, Jones traversed the terrain on foot and navigated the rivers in rafts. Weeks of hiking and carrying heavy photographic equipment and provisions required athletic stamina and calorie-rich meals. During the summer months, the light that prevailed 24 hours per day provided extraordinary luminosity for photographs but took its toll on scheduled sleep. Wild conditions posed numerous other challenges. Coastal marshes attracted insidious swarms of voracious mosquitoes so dense that they obscured the lenses. Gale force winds brought bitter cold thunderstorms and flash floods. Lightning strikes caused naturally occurring forest fires that delayed photography for days until the smoke cleared.
Manipulating camera equipment in such extremes requires ingenuity and forethought to prevent malfunctions caused by moisture or ice crystals. As a precaution, Jones traveled with multiple camera bodies and stowed equipment in padded, insulated containers when navigating rough terrain. In the summer months, he used a portable solar roll to power his electronic equipment and charge batteries.
During winter months, Jones was accompanied by an Inupiat guide well versed in Arctic wilderness survival. Born into a heritage of indigenous hunter-gatherers known for their close relationship to the migrating herds of Porcupine caribou, the Inupiat guides are skilled hunters, and as such, excellent protectors in the wilderness.
“It is humbling to realize that humans are in the middle of the food chain in such a remote area. I was grateful to be in the company of someone so familiar with the danger we faced,” said Jones.
Surviving such temperature extremes required a massive calorie intake each day from a diet rich in fats, protein and carbohydrates; it was not unusual to consume 2000+ calorie breakfasts and high-calorie snacks every several hours to maintain body temperature. Sensitive camera equipment required special care in the sub-zero temperatures as well. Jones often warmed hard drives used to store his digital images by placing them under his parka to absorb body heat prior to use.
Undaunted by the recurring challenges, Jones captured an extraordinary compilation of landscape photographs, 153 of which are featured in Arctic Sanctuary. The images are accompanied by contemplative essays written by Laurie Hoyle and a forward by Arizona-based environmental journalist and author, Michael Engelhard, best known for his coverage of issues affecting Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other national wilderness preserves. The book is a work of art in itself. Jones purposefully omitted any overt visual reminders of the destruction that has already occurred at the expense of oil in neighboring regions of Alaska. Instead, it is intended to be inspirational, as if to forgive the litany of political and economic agendas that threaten the Refuge.
Despite the apolitical intentions behind Jones’ epic depiction of the majestic wild nature of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, its abundant natural resources, namely oil, has sparked heated arguments that transcend political affiliation and land squarely on economics. The Refuge has surprising allies in otherwise pro-oil politicians such as Arizona Senator John McCain, who voted against Senate Amendment 3132, which would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, while progressive democrats such as those occupying current congressional seats have failed to close the door on development.
Both sides of the oil debate in Alaska have garnered impassioned support. On one hand, the depressed economy, pressure to reduce consumption of foreign oil and diminishing flow in the existing Alaskan oil pipeline are factors that have united unemployed residents, pro-development politicians and oil prospectors alike. On the other hand, scientists, environmentalists and progressive politicians warn that opening the Refuge to oil excavation may lead to devastating consequences for the indigenous wildlife and native Indian populations that depend on the wholeness of the region’s biodiversity for survival.
“These concerns impact our future,” warned Engelhard. “Preservation of our natural resources and national treasures should transcend party lines and international borders. Conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats alike will have to answer to as yet unborn generations.” While the nation seems united in respect for wild places such as the Grand Canyon, which enjoys national monument status, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has yet to garner a united defense.
“In the wilds we comprehend that in the big picture and over the long run security does not come from controlling and exploiting nature. The fundamental revelation of this first century of ecological science is that human well-being is inextricably linked to the health, diversity, and normal functioning of the global ecosystem.”
Roderick Frazier Nash
At risk are 1.3 million acres of delicate estuaries and coastal plains on the northern edge of the Refuge known as Area 1002. Set aside by Congress for environmental assessments, including assessments of its natural resources, Area 1002 cannot be developed or exploited for fossil fuels without prior Congressional consent. Legislation has been introduced on numerous occasions, and in 1995, a bill authorizing oil drilling in Area 1002 narrowly passed in Congress, only to be vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
In an article published in National Wildlife earlier this year, Engelhard wrote, “Driven by oil revenues, potential jobs for constituents and ever-increasing demand for petroleum, Alaska’s pro-development politicians repeatedly have introduced bills to open the Refuge to resource extraction. One senator even tried to put an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling amendment on a bill designed to cut back global warming.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, future drilling is not the only critical threat to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Use of fossil fuels throughout the world has already taken a toll in the form of global warming, evidenced by diminishing glaciers and a drastic reduction of ice in the Arctic seas. The changes have also lead to rising tides and coastal erosion. Scientists have been observing the gradual temperature averages increase nearly seven degrees over the past five decades. The rising temperatures also threaten the permafrost upon which the fragile ecosystems depend. Changing weather patterns such as increased rain that causes ice conditions versus normal snowfall impact food supply for Musk ox and other herbivores. Forty-three fish species, 45 mammal species, and nearly 200 bird species reside in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, along with multiple species of moss, lichen and vascular plants that have adapted to the characteristics of their Arctic environment. These plants and animals are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Studies examining repeat photographs of permanent vegetation plots, both inside and outside the boundaries of the Refuge, have recorded changes since the middle of the last century. Images taken in 1948 have been compared with images taken within the last 10 years. While few dramatic changes to vegetation have occurred within the protected Refuge borders, shrub cover increases, by contrast, have been documented in unprotected areas to the west.
Having returned to the northern shores numerous times since 1982, Jones has observed astonishing changes in the northern coastline. “I have noticed a dramatic increase in the level of coastal erosion, especially in the last five years,” he explained.
Environmentalists fear that a reduction in sea ice removes an obstacle that has prevented oil drilling in the region in the past, a point observed by Engelhard. “Entirely new scenarios arise with climate change, like the potential of another Exxon Valdez-scale spill if or when shipping lanes along Alaska’s north coast will become technically and economically feasible due to the lack of sea ice,” he said.
“I think it is human nature to want
to know that wild places exist, that they are healthy, vital and free to proceed on their own without the interference of modern civilization.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has actively fought to prevent lawmakers from opening Arctic waterways targeted by BP, Shell and other major petroleum companies. When the Bush administration, during its final days, authorized sale of drilling rights in the Chukchi Sea, the NRDC in partnership with Earth Justice launched a counter attack in federal court charging that the government had failed to study the far-reaching impacts of oil development in the region, had broken U.S. environmental law and should be ordered to revoke drilling rights sold. More than a year later, on the heels of the BP oil disaster, a federal judge sided with the environmentalists in a ruling that bars petroleum companies from drilling until more impact and risk assessments can be made.
An oil spill on any scale could be even more devastating in any Arctic waters, where cleanup would be next to impossible due to its remote location and frigid climate. According to Peter Lehner, executive director of the NRDC, “The oil industry has no technology for cleaning up oil in broken sea ice — one of the main places where polar bears search for food.” Polar bears depend upon the insulation of their fur to maintain body temperature. Oil absorbed by polar bears’ coats would have devastating results, similar to the fate of oil-coated birds that perished in the Gulf of Mexico. “Oil-covered polar bears have almost no chance of survival.”
Coastal erosion and melting ice also present problems for polar bears that have begun to give birth on land when they have no access to ice where they naturally create their dens. Other wildlife is vulnerable to development and traffic of any kind in the region. In 1987, the United States and Canada signed an international agreement for management and protection of the herds migrating through the U.S.-Canada border zone. In response, Canada has established two national parks along the eastern border of the refuge to protect the natural caribou migration route. Refuge advocates are hopeful that the United States will in kind form permanent protection of Area 1002. The coastal plain is the calving habitat for the Porcupine caribou herds that migrate more that 1500 miles north each summer to receive relief from biting insects that reside inland. Indigenous people, particularly the Gwich’in Indians, have depended upon the health of the caribou herds for centuries, and they depend on the continued health of the Refuge as a whole for survival.
Similar issues plague the National Wildlife Refuges adjacent to the Southern United States’ border with Mexico. With inadequate protection from development coupled with border security and immigration issues, natural migration patterns of indigenous animals have been severely compromised. Ocelots, pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep are among other wildlife species that are critically endangered as a result of pollution, over-development, storm runoff, international border barricades, property fences, roads and other development limitations imposed on their habitat. We’ve also seen the results of human interference in major waterways such as the Colorado River and the Mississippi River Delta. It is unknown whether drastic action could ever reverse the damage that has already been done to these regions. What is known is what we can prevent, given the opportunity to protect the last and largest remaining wholly intact, undisturbed ecosystem in the U.S.
“There is a wonderful feedback loop in witnessing what we can do to prevent destruction of our wild lands. Choices we make in our every day lives determine whether or not places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will continue to thrive,” said Jones, who is hopeful that his work will make a positive impact on those who may be swayed to protect it. Despite the fact that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a place where most will never visit, Jones stands firm in his belief that people find a great deal of satisfaction just knowing it is there and will continue to be protected. “I think it is human nature to want to know that wild places exist, that they are healthy, vital and free to proceed on their own without the interference of modern civilization,” he said.
“Above all, the value of the Refuge is symbolic: it is living proof of our respect and ability to restrain ourselves, acknowledgment of the fact that we share this planet and depend on it, human and other-than-human beings. As such, its preservation is more a moral imperative than just common sense,” said Engelhard.
In Arctic Sanctuary: Images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Jones offers proof positive that the Refuge is a gift that we have the power to protect for future generations.
An active environmentalist, Jeff Jones follows in the American tradition of raising public awareness of wilderness through art. His work has supported numerous art and environmental organizations including the Alaska Coalition, Alaska Wilderness League, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks, Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council and its Environmental Defense Center, the Murie Center, Wildling Art Museum, Sequoia Parks Foundation and the Sierra Club. The release of Arctic Sanctuary: Images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (University of Alaska Press, University of Chicago Press, 2010) coincides with the nationwide celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Fifty images will be on an exhibition tour throughout the country. For more information about the exhibition, visit fws.org. The book is available at fine bookstores or online at www.lumnos.com, University of Alaska Press, University of Chicago Press and Amazon.com. To purchase a book signed by the authors, please visit www.lumnos.com.