Learning from Alaska: Sustainability and the Conservation Movement, Part One

Learning from Alaska: Sustainability and the Conservation Movement, Part One

noun /ˈwildərnəs/

(1) a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings 
(2) an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community


I’ll be retiring as an active partner of WRNS at the end of this year and as I prepare for this change, I’ve been thinking more and more about wilderness (yup…that’s right, wilderness) – my history with it, what defines it, where it still exists, how much remains, and how our profession, so focused on building and transforming the environment, can serve to protect it. So, this feels like a good time to record – through personal experience and a couple of stories – some thoughts on the subject (accompanied by a few photos, of course).

If by reading this you get to thinking about wilderness, great. If by reading it you’re inspired to take more direct action, even better. The country needs a new conservation movement, and you are all more qualified than most to join it. At the least, I hope the following is informative and mildly entertaining…

I grew up in Downey, California – a blue-collar town smack in the middle of Los Angeles’ post-WW II sprawl, where I had little exposure to wilderness. As I got older, occasional trips to the Southern California desert and even more occasionally, trips to Yosemite, introduced me to the concept of “uncultivated regions.” Both the desert and Yosemite, at least those areas I was able to access, were fairly well-trodden and actively managed – not real wilderness by any current definition – but I tried my best to venture out to their edges whenever possible. While hiking, discovering places where there was little or no evidence of human habitation became a passion.

My interest in wilderness grew after entering Berkeley in the 70’s. It was a great time to study architecture, as the environmental movement was in full swing. Architects were re-discovering links between long-term ecological thinking (which evolved into sustainable design) and the act of conservation, and their work was beginning to reflect it (think ‘Sea Ranch’). Being at Berkeley, we were also assaulted by a new wave of dire predictions focused on the unsustainability of our modern civilization: unchecked population growth, pollution, nuclear proliferation, the squandering of natural resources, and the horrors of war (Vietnam in particular, which was finally just ending) all pointed to the end of our species and the planet as we knew it. As architecture students, we became convinced that employing the power of sustainable design and enacting sound environmental public policy could save the earth. It was heady times.

My architecture professors at Berkeley were inspiring, but didn’t come close to influencing me to the extent a couple other professors did. The first was Daniel Luten. A chemist turned environmentalist, he was one of our country’s foremost authorities on wilderness and the importance of its preservation. I remember him best for proposing half-jokingly, half-longingly, the creation of a National Migratory Buffalo Pathway – a 200-mile wide swath of land stretching from the Canadian border to the Texas panhandle — where the once-great American Bison herds could be reinstated and then left to migrate freely along their ancestral pathways. Wow. The second was Starker Leopold. Son of Aldo Leopold (author of The Sand County Almanac and one of the great voices of the American conservation movement), Starker Leopold was a professor of Forestry and Zoology, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a special advisor to the National Park Service. His class in wildlife biology, more than any class I’d ever taken, changed the course of my studies and to a large extent, my outlook on life.

I can trace this change to a class field trip. On a cold, overcast winter day, Professor Leopold led us on a trip into the Sacramento Valley and up to the Gray Lodge State Wildlife Refuge, about a two-hour drive northeast from San Francisco. A 9,100-acre reserve flanking the Sutter Buttes, Gray Lodge protects a riparian and wetlands ecosystem that once encompassed the entirety of California’s Central Valley and now serves as a critical stop for migratory birds travelling the Pacific Flyway. While growing up I’d seen an occasional v-shaped skein of migrating waterfowl fly through the Southern California skies, but never anything like I experienced at Gray Lodge. Imagine over a million migratory waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans) flying in and out of the refuge area in groups of all sizes, at every elevation, to and from every direction. It was chaotic and powerful.  I was a bit overwhelmed, fumbling with my camera, trying to capture some images of meaning, when I heard the call of a flight of birds completely new and unfamiliar to me. Sandhill Cranes. A very old species with fossil records dating back over 10,000,000 years, the cranes were flying high over the refuge, well above the cacophony below. Listening to that ghostly call — a sound that hit me in my spine — connected me with the stretch of time and the concept of wilderness like nothing I’d ever experienced. Luckily, I was standing right next to Professor Leopold and quickly asked him where those birds were coming from. He looked at me and smiled, “The sandhills? Why, they’re flying south from their breeding grounds in the arctic…they’re coming from Alaska.”

Grey Lodge State Wildlife Refuge, Sacramento Valley

From then on I had one important goal in mind – to get to Alaska and to the greatest extent possible, experience what our country must have looked like before colonists obliterated it and more importantly, to see the wilderness those cranes had come from. I continued my studies in architecture, but modified my curriculum to earn a Minor in Wildlife Biology. I read every book on Alaska, the arctic, and the subject of wilderness I could find. I applied for a job as a National Park Service seasonal ‘Ranger/Naturalist’ in Mt. McKinley National Park (now “Denali National Park and Preserve”), got the job, accelerated my graduation so I wouldn’t miss any part of my first season in Denali, and in May 1974, I took off in my 1964 Ford Econoline Van (“The White Iron”) and headed north.

It was a 3,000 + mile trip, and a good portion of the drive took place on the mostly unpaved Alcan Highway. I quickly became immersed in the lore and history of Alaska and the Park, and worked hard to offer that knowledge to the visitors who’d travelled from so far away to visit it. Midway into the season, I was able to transfer to the Park’s concessioner as a Naturalist/Guide, helping me to earn a bit more money to support upcoming grad school. As well, the job was free of many of the political constraints that came with Federal employment: the small group of Naturalist/Guides had greater flexibility regarding what we could share with the Park’s visitors. We were all young, idealistic, committed, completely immune to differing points-of-view (that is, a little naive and self-righteous) and even as relative newcomers, we were fiercely protective of Alaska, its wilderness, and the Park that we were growing to love beyond all description.

View to terminus of Muldrow Glacier, Alaska Range, Denali National Park

I recall a couple of days during that first season as if they happened last week. 99% of the visitors to Denali experience the Park only from the seat of a bus (which from the Park’s perspective and its sustainability, is a blessing). The Park’s only road, with just the first 15 miles paved and the remainder gravel, stretches 90 miles from its entry at the state highway, past Wonder Lake to the end of the road at the Kantishna, once a gold-mining encampment but now home to a couple of notable wilderness lodges. The typical day trip is about eight hours, travelling sixty miles into the Park before turning around and heading back. As a Naturalist/Guide, it was my job to take a daily group of 40 visitors on these day long journeys, help them spot wildlife and points of interest, and enlighten them on the Park’s geology, natural history, cultural history, wildlife, biology, etc. The first of those two days was a disaster. My group had all travelled a long way and gotten up at 4:00 am for this journey but unfortunately, saw virtually nothing during the eight-hour trip but the rear end of a wet moose.  I couldn’t help but feel responsible for their extreme disappointment. It rained all day, and low fog obscured even the lower peaks of the north expanse of the Alaska Range. They had no chance to see even a glimpse of Denali. As well, no grizzly bears, no caribou, no Dall sheep, no golden eagles, and not even a marmot or a pika.

True to form and the vagaries of weather and wilderness, the next day was unbelievably magnificent. Clear and relatively warm, we had a bonanza of wildlife sightings – numerous moose; over thirteen-hundred caribou (a good portion of the small ‘McKinley’ herd); eighteen individual grizzly bears including three sows, each with two yearling cubs; over fifty Dall sheep in several distinct groups; golden eagles and several species of hawks. We also glimpsed a Canadian lynx (a rare siting) and most fortunately, a grey wolf from afar (a very rare siting). As for Denali, the day was clear and cloudless from sunrise with its summit in alpen glow (from around eighty miles away), to the mountain in its entirety from thirty miles away later in the day (the mountain rises three miles from its base, and thirty miles from that base is its closest distance from the Park road).

At the end of this day and back at the Park entry, my very tired but appreciative, mostly elderly passengers disembarked, having had what I believe was one of the most memorable days of their lives. As most of them disembarked, rushing to secure their baggage and quickly get to the train depot for their six-hour ride to Anchorage, one woman came off the bus and took me aside. She told me her husband had recently passed and they had planned this once-in-a lifetime trip together. As difficult as it was for her, she still came in spite of his passing, hoping to honor his memory. She was absolutely sure that the rare nature of the day and the things she was able to see were the doings of her husband’s spirit, and that she felt him next to her the entire trip. I often still hear and feel her words.

Towards the end of each trip into the Park, I used to implore visitors – most of whom were only in the Park that one day in their entire lives – to remember what they had seen and to take those memories back home with them, seek the wilderness still existing in their own communities, and then work hard to protect and conserve it. If my message resonated with at least a couple visitors out of the 40 or so I’d guided through the Park on any given day, I’d consider it a success. Certainly that message resonated on that most memorable day.

Denali – tallest mountain in North America, Denali National Park

Continue to Part Two

Note: The annotated photographs throughout this post and Part Two comprise of a few digitized copies of 40+ year-old slides (so please, excuse the quality). Some of the best photographs were graciously ‘loaned’ to me by Kenny Bahr, a semi-professional photographer and one of the members of our Gates of the Arctic party. If you’re at all compelled to share any of these in any form, please refrain from sharing Kenny’s, as they represent a good portion of his livelihood (you can, of course, contact him to purchase: kennybahr@ofmlive.net).