By Ruth Conniff
Wisconsin workers face a lousy jobs picture this Labor Day, according to...
Ginny Wood is sitting on her porch in Dogpatch, Alaska, looking out over the golden birches now at their autumn peak. The light is transcendent, and the temperature is mild. It’s a blessing day, since I’m sitting next to one of my heroes, listening to a woman I love and admire. She has lived on this piece of land most of her life, raised her daughter, Romany, here, raised her food here, and knows every hiking and ski trail for miles around because she is the one who has groomed them for decades. This beautiful homestead of friends and family is situated just outside Fairbanks in North Star County. Ginny is ninety-three years old. She is also one of the great conservationists of our time, alongside Celia Hunter and Mardy Murie—three women who committed their lives to seeing that the Arctic National Wildlife Re fuge remains wild.
“So far, so good,” Ginny says on this gorgeous day of falling birch leaves. She is talking about the Arctic Refuge surviving the threat of oil extraction on the Coastal Plain, especially during the Bush-Cheney years. It was another close call. And the pressure to drill in the Arctic remains as long as politicians like Sarah Palin keep leading chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill.”
“Celia always said that a miracle would occur at just the right moment. And so far she’s been right,” Ginny says.
Celia Hunter became president of the Wilderness Society in 1976, the first woman to ever head a national conservation association. But Celia and Ginny were used to claiming firsts for women. Both were pilots—members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASPs, in World War II—qualified to fly the most sophisticated fighter planes. And on January 1, 1947, the two of them became the first women to fly across Alaska, which took them thirty hours of airtime stretched out over twenty-seven days. When they landed in Fairbanks, it was fifty below zero.
In 1952, Ginny, her husband, Woody, and Celia staked out a claim under the Homestead Act on the western boundary of Denali National Park and created Camp Denali, patterned after the European hut system. They wanted to inspire guests to appreciate the majesty of the natural world in their beloved Alaska.
Their love of Alaska was met by the Murie brothers’ love of Alaska. Olaus and Adolph Murie were biologists who were cataloguing Arctic flora and fauna. Adolph would write the landmark conservation work The Wolves of Mt. McKinley on the importance of predator-prey relationships. And in 1956, Olaus and his wife, Mardy, embarked on a summer-long field study of the Sheenjek River in the Brooks Range that would mark the beginning of the conservation movement in Alaska. It would also set the stage for creating the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960, a natural area large enough to support the Porcupine River caribou migration that extended from the Arctic Ocean to the southern boreal forests. It was here in the campaign to protect this magnificent Arctic ecosystem that a lifelong friendship was forged between Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood and the Murie family.
As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it is well to remember that conservation has always been rooted in relationships, both human and wild.
I first met Mardy Murie when I was eighteen years old at the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She welcomed us students into her home in Moose. She told us stories of growing up in Fairbanks as a young girl, of Olaus’s field work studying caribou for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1920, of dog-sledding together on their extended honeymoon. She showed us her slides of their summer on the Sheenjek River with Olaus’s student George Schaller, who would later become one of the great biologists of the twentieth century. Mardy shared their love of Alaska with us—and their ongoing dream of Arctic protection. And she impressed upon us the dedication of their group of friends, which included Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and the writers Sigurd Olson and Lois Crisler, along with Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood. This was a community of friends who together built a state and national constituency for the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Range, placing pressure on Congress, until it was established in 1960, by Dwight D. Eisenhower through a Presidential proclamation.
This victory came from revolutionary patience and from a community of Americans who never let go of their wild, unruly faith that love can lead to social change. The Muries believed that the protection of wild lands was the protection of natural processes, the unseen presence in wilderness. The Wilderness Act, another one of their dreams, was signed in 1964.
It was Mardy who inspired me to join her and a thousand others on June 5, 1977, to attend the Alaska Lands Hearings in Denver, Colorado. I hitched a ride with friends; we slept on the floor of a church. The next morning, road weary, we cleaned ourselves up and found seats inside the capitol. We listened to testimonies, Mardy’s among them. This was one of the many regional hearings conducted by the House Interior Subcommittee on General Oversight and Alaska Lands. Congressman Morris Udall was at the helm of this committee. He was a fierce advocate for Alaska wild lands.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter expanded the National Arctic Wildlife Range from 8.9 million acres to 19 million acres and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now, thirty years later, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, son of Congressman Morris Udall, and his cousin Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, son of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, are rallying their fellow Senators to call on President Obama to designate the refuge as a monument.
I can think of no greater way to honor this anniversary. Such a gesture of recognition and respect would not only offer these fragile wild lands more definitive protection from oil and gas development, but it would signify the virtue of restraint. Wildness is a deeply held American value. This is a land legacy we cannot afford to lose.
The testimony of Olaus Murie before the U.S. Senate decades earlier reminds us:
“We long for something more, something that has a mental, a spiritual impact on us. This idealism, more than anything else, will set us apart as a nation striving for something worthwhile in the universe. . . . It is inevitable, if we are to progress as people in the highest sense, that we shall become ever more concerned with the saving of the intangible resources, as embodied in this move to establish the Arctic Wildlife Range.”
Our thinking about the Arctic Refuge continues to evolve. In one poll, 62 percent of Americans endorse designating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a monument.
At a time when climate change is among us, when large intact ecosystems are becoming increasingly fragmented and scarce, the obligation to protect the refuge becomes imperative not just for its own sake, but for the sake of the planet.
I think of the next generation of Arctic advocates who are planting “Arctic gardens” for the birds in their backyard in all fifty states, people who understand that the birds at their feeders are the same birds that originate on the refuge’s vast tundra plains: songbirds like redpolls, tree sparrows, and yellow warblers. And shorebirds like Wilson’s snipes, lesser yellowlegs, red-necked phalaropes, and all manner of sandpipers that may not appear in urban backyards, but will be winging their way north and south through the wetlands of Great Salt Lake, continuing to navigate by stars.
I think of the thousands of schoolchildren across America who have been flying kites in honor of these migratory birds throughout this celebratory year. They are nurturing an understanding of what the Gwich’in people have always known: that the Arctic is the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
Indeed, we are interconnected and interdependent. This is one of the great lessons the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge continues to teach us.
Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League (email@example.com), who has initiated these community gardens and kite festivals, believes in this kind of celebratory engagement. “We can continue to press Congress for decisive protection of the Arctic Refuge and we can encourage young conservationists to continue to support Alaska wilderness in the deepest possible way—beginning with joyful recognition of our connections to wild places, even if we never travel there,” she says. “To give the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the added protection of becoming the Arctic National Wildlife Monument would be a great gift to future generations and a remarkable safeguard for all manner of life that dwells there, from caribou to swans, polar bears to swallows.”
Two enormous Arctic tern puppets made by the Backbone Campaign made their debut on the Mall in Washington, D.C., during Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. They flew above the crowd like angels.
It was the Arctic tern that moved me most when I stood in the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in July 2003. The bird’s yearly migratory path of 22,000 miles belongs to the miraculous. No creature on Earth has spent more time in daylight than this species. No creature on Earth has shunned darkness in the same way as the Arctic tern. No creature carries the strength and delicacy of determination on its back like this slight bird. If air is the medium of the Spirit, then the Arctic tern is its messenger.
Margi Dashevsky is sitting on the other side of Ginny Wood as I recall our heavenly visit in September. Her parents, Sam and Tako, are sitting next to her. Ginny’s two caregivers, Kat and Debbie, are also present with Romany’s husband, Carl. Romany has just brought her mother’s beloved dessert, native blueberry gingerbread, fresh out of the oven, covered with whipping cream, out to the porch. We approach this home-baked offering as sacrament.
Generations of caring about beauty and wildness.
And it is ongoing.
Margi, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College in Environmental Studies, was born and raised in Dogpatch, grew up next to Ginny and Celia, was mentored by them, was cradled under these same golden birches, swung from them as a child.
I recently received a note from Margi.
“I know with deep-felt certainty that the natural beauty and integrity of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is worth more than any short-term gains oil and gas development could ever offer,” she wrote. She recognized “our dire need to reduce our consumption of oil and shift our focus away from such unsustainable sources and instead move towards renewables that will support the long-term health of our communities and ecosystems.” And she revealed a personal connection. “My middle name, Nularvik, is a river in the Refuge,” she wrote. “I’ve been told it means campsite, or literally ‘place where a tent stood,’ in Inupiat. People have been part of the landscape of the Arctic Refuge for countless generations, and I hope that people will continue to interact with that special place with the necessary respect that will enable the refuge to continue to exist, unimpaired, indefinitely.”
Let us honor the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with a name that is descriptive of what it is—a monument—yes, a monument to wildness, to perspective, to all that is humble and grand among us.
Life: winged, hoofed, and rooted—intact, in place—forever.
The Arctic National Wildlife Monument would speak to a scale of equanimity that cannot be registered in human terms. It is geologic, tectonic, and planetary: a refuge of dreams evolving.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “ The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.
To read other stories by Terry Tempest Williams, click here.