by Stephen Capra
I remember reading an article, around 1984, it was about this place in northern Alaska called the “refuge”, as a young man I had read and dreamed of the Great Plains that were once filled with bison, wolves and passenger pigeons. I had begun my own adventures in the lower 48, in the West, but still dreamed of a place that captured the wild spirit and wildlife abundance that once defined America.
When I read of the refuge, the massive caribou migration, the polar, grizzly, black bears, the snow geese, owls, and even narwhals off the coast, the Native Americans that still called it a land of subsistence, I knew in my heart that this place must be saved. That America must have learned from its careless and destructive past and rather than destroy its wild heart, would mobilize to protect this last great slice of wildness.
I was a young man living in the heart of New York City, and soon found myself setting up stands at street fairs, asking people to sign petitions and being looked at as rather odd, in the city that never sleeps. Later hired by a conservation group I lost my fear of public speaking and traveled across the east and mid-west telling all who would listen about the need to preserve this last wild bastion of true freedom. In 1990, determined and confident that protection would come soon, I began, with a good friend, a 3200-hike the length of the Continental Divide, to raise awareness for the refuge. The idea, we were hiking the wildest part of the lower 48 to raise awareness for the wildest part of America!
In the intervening years, I crossed paths with so many people, from Lenny Kohm, who spent seemingly a lifetime traveling the country and speaking to gain support for the refuge and who died too soon late last year, to those who rode bikes cross-country or wore bear costumes in marches, lobbying on the Hill and strategizing legislation, to personally taking Gwich’in Natives across New Mexico and Arizona and sharing feasts of goat intestine soup on the Navajo Reservation!
What began in our youth turned into a desire to see it complete in our lifetime. Many of us, the people who fought hard to see this place protected, woke up last Sunday not to fireworks or some dramatic finish, but to a simple press release that said the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge would be protected forever, because of the courage of President Obama. Protecting nature is never easy, and for the thousands of people who made its protection a focal point of their lives, it is a moment to cherish, for at last America is correcting what many see as the sins of its past.
Like many people who fought to protect this place, I have never been there. I have dreamed it many times, visualized the caribou and crossing the braided rivers, perhaps battling the tundra as it swallows my every step. Some places you will fight for, not for yourself, but for generations to come. That sensibility is what the conservation community was built upon.
Many in Alaska are angry and bitter, they feel that the President somehow stole the land or as Fox News and others will say is part of his “refusing to work with” mentality. They would be wrong. For more than 30 years this drama has played out and so many times we thought we were close to victory and other times hanging on by a thread. Through it all the American people seem to understand the value of this place. You cannot compromise wilderness; roads and pipelines take away the soul of the land.
Alaska like so many other parts of the world must begin the process of moving away from oil. It is a land blessed with natural beauty beyond words. That beauty, not oil, is what we are fighting for in a world that at times has lost so much beauty.
No one ever said or thought this battle would take so long. Many of us young and angry are now gray and mellowed, but this fight remains one of the epic battles of conservation. Today many of us are proud and smiling and all of us are thankful to a President that had the courage to say yes to wildlife, yes to beauty and yes to wildness.
The Arctic Refuge is protected; generations to come can only begin to dream.
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