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08/26/2011

America's Last Great Wilderness

The Arctic Refuge is really amazing.  It's spectacular, breathtaking, and vast.  I've always believed that from what I'd heard.  But now I know for myself.  

My visit to the Arctic Refuge will not be forgotten.  Refuge_ Lindsey Hadjuck

Before entering the wilderness of the Refuge, I had a one-day visit to Arctic Village.  The first impression you get is of lakes, rivers, hills, and mountains enveloping the town and it just gets more interesting from there.  My group was greeted by Sarah James, a true hero of the Arctic Refuge.  Sarah has been honored with the Goldman Prize for outstanding environmental, grassroots activism.  I have met Sarah in Washington DC, but to meet her in her hometown was something else.  We spent a day visiting the school and the old and new churches, and we were able to meet many residents of the village and hear first hand that they want to see the Arctic Refuge protected for their future generations.  The village was alive on one of the bluest and sunniest days of the summer.

Even now the Porcupine Caribou Herd is passing through Arctic Village.  Scopes were pointed to the hills, fresh kills were being processed, and caribou soup was on the stove!  The Gwich’in are the Caribou People and this is the best time of year to be amongst them.  All the while, my gaze would pass to the north upon the mountains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  To the Gwich’in, the Coastal Plain is not anywhere they would go because it is sacred for the caribou.  To them it is just important to know it exists and to live in harmony with it.  Over the years millions of people have worked to protect the Arctic Refuge while only a fraction of those get to see the Refuge every single day, but we all share that same vision.

After a great night in Arctic Village (and hopefully more to come) we were off to the Arctic Refuge.  Oddly enough, after we passed over the Brooks Range Mountains and climbed further and further north, we landed in the sunny and hot foothills on the Aichilik River, which is the eastern boundary of the famed Coastal Plain of the Refuge.  My first steps over a bluff led me to a treasure: blueberries!  And not just that, but also cloudberries, bear berries, and crow berries ready for the taking (we made 4 pies that week!).  Luckily, the one and only grizzly we saw wasn’t interested in sticking around for a snack.

Refuge coastal plain_arctic poppy_Lindsey Hajduk In such a remote location it is wonderful to see all the signs of wildlife: caribou highways carved into hillsides, Dall sheep trails clinging on precipitous mountain sides, dens dug into the tundra, and bear, wolf, and caribou prints along the river bank.  Eagles, merlins, falcons, and song birds flew, while ground squirrels (or sik-sik) ran away.  Your eyes were always scanning the landscape, but they’d also bring you close to the earth to the amazing diversity of tundra flora.  I was travelling with a mycologist and a lichenologist, and there were plenty of lichens and mushrooms to keep them looking at one square meter of tundra for a while!

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Aichilik was hiking up a ridge and looking north to the Coastal Plain.  With the sun, the hills of the plain shone bright green and the Arctic Ocean glowed on the horizon.  To the south the rocky, sharp mountains were such a contrast to the fruitful Coastal Plain.  You could see for miles across the vast plain, and there was no doubt that oil drilling rigs just don’t fit in to the landscape.  The Coastal Plain is the biological heart of the Refuge; its health ensures healthy wildlife on land and at sea.  

Like I said, millions of Americans have been fighting for over 50 years (the life of the Refuge) to protect the coastal plain for its wildlife and for our future generations to come.  Right now we come to another crossroad where the Obama Administration can act and declare the Coastal Plain a wilderness area, therefore permanently protecting it from dirty oil drilling.  They need to hear from you to make sure this happens.

As I was returning from the Arctic Refuge the US Fish and Wildlife Service was releasing a draft of the new Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). This plan will set management direction for at least the next decade. For the first time ever the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to designate the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge as Wilderness (the highest level of protection possible). To make this a reality they need to hear from you.

Click here to tell the USFWS to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge as Wilderness.

-- By Lindsey Hajduk

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