Last night I attended public comment hearing for the preliminary stages of a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In short, this comment period allows the public to offer information and thoughts on some of the issues they feel might need to be addressed, and oftentimes their thoughts as to how those issues should be addressed. The CCP will be a document that “outlines and guides long-term management” of the Refuge. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) are the land management agency responsible for managing the Refuge. If you would like to add your input at this stage, here is Comment Form for the Refuge. Before you do, it’s worth browsing the FWS ANWR webpage for some useful ideas on how this works (they’re not looking for reasons why the coastal plain might or might not be opened to drilling – that decision is to be the work of Congress, not the simple folks of the FWS).
One of the critical topics up for discussion is the designation of ”wilderness” in the Refuge. Currently, nearly half (41%) of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 19.3 million acres is designated wilderness. The remaining 10 million acres are not currently designated “wilderness”. The FWS are presently proposing to study these areas and determine whether or not they qualify as wilderness; the ‘Wilderness Review‘ section of the CCP. A recommendation could then be made to Congress to designate these areas wilderness. Such a designation would render the Refuge off-limits to oil and gas extraction.
The arguments were the same tired commentaries we’ve heard countless times now; “we need the oil, we don’t need to send our money overseas, national security, billions of dollars worth of economic value, etc, etc”. Yadda Yadda Yadda. What everybody failed to mention is reality; the area IS wild. I challenge anyone to visit the Refuge, traverse those majestic mountains, feel the vastness of the coastal plain, and argue that this is not wild land, is not wildness and wilderness. We can draw up our arbitrary lines of demarcation, our imaginary boundaries, but all this illustrates is how far removed we are from a real understanding of wildness, of wilderness.
The caribou herds know. The great grizzly bears know. The Arctic Tern, returning home from their world travels, know. The countless mosquitoes swarming up from the tundra know. The lichens know, the sedges and shrubs know. The mountains know, the rivers and glaciers know. How is it that we don’t know? What have we lost that we are now unable to feel this place and know it’s wildness? Or, if we DO know this wildness, what kind of fantasyland are we living in that we might deny it? I’m reminded of a great book by writer Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe. Derrick writes, “For us to maintain our way of living, we must tell lies to each other and especially to ourselves. The lies are necessary because, without them, many deplorable acts would become impossibilities.”
Last night I sat through 4 hours of public ‘comment’ that was largely a bunch of lies. Lies in the sense that the intent is to deny reality. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is indeed wilderness. A great wilderness, a beautiful wild place. A wilderness, like all wild places, that is like no other.
Below is the (rather clumsy, if not nerdish) definition of wilderness, as per the Wilderness Act:
(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.
While I find the very idea of defining ‘wilderness‘ to be oxymoronic (the minute we define it, we lose it), I’ll leave that discussion for another article. The landscape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is indeed a wilderness. The US Government might not yet understand that, but, it seems, that’s their own shortcoming; I realized it the first time I visited the place. Every single person I’ve travelled in the Refuge with, and every person I’ve met who’s ever been there realize it as well. To argue that this is not a wilderness is akin to arguing against gravity; it’s simply absurdly dishonest.
The FWS would do well to deal with reality here; and recommend that Congress do the same, acknowledging fully the great wildness of the Refuge. Denial is, they say, one of the great signs of addiction; to live more honestly is to see things the way they actually are. And the wilderness of the Refuge, including the awesome coastal plan, is every bit as wild as we are.