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From Preservation to Adaptation: Safeguarding Our Natural Resources in the 21st Century

Caribou pam miller(Image: Pam Miller/Sierra Club)

Adapted from Lands Team Senior Representative Catherine Semcer's plenary speech at the Wildlife Society's 2011 conference in Hawaii. Follow us on Twitter, where Catherine live-tweeted the conference.

For me, one of the perks of working in conservation is the ability to interact with some of our world’s most beautiful and inspiring landscapes, along with the people, and wildlife, who call them home. 

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to help organize and participate in a media tour of Alaska’s Western Arctic, an area often underappreciated by the public, in no small part because it is named The National Petroleum Reserve. 26 million acres in size, and largely roadless, it remains one of the most remote places in our nation. Like these places often are, the region is also an important area for wildlife from caribou to migratory birds.

Our goal for our expedition was to explore the seldom travelled Kokolik River by raft and document the wildlife and recreational opportunities that could be found there. We wanted to try and dispel the claims of some politicians that the area was a wasteland, good only for the coal and other fossil fuels that can be found there.

Our base for the expedition was the Inupiat village of Kotzebue, perched 33 miles above the Arctic Circle, on a gravel spit in Kotzebue Sound, at the edge of Chukchi Sea. Like most remote settlements, life in Kotzebue is more precarious than it is in more developed areas. The people still live a largely subsistence lifestyle, relying on the whales, the seals, and the caribou that calve in the place we were headed—not only their food, but their culture.

Before flying into the bush our group had the privilege of meeting three of the most incredible people I have ever known: Seth Kantner, and Bob and Carrie Uhl.

Seth had been raised in the bush and made part of his living as a commercial fisherman. Carrie was Inupiat and married Bob after he arrived in Alaska during World War Two and decided to stay. 

We took Seth’s small fishing boat, a boat with no cabin to keep us sheltered from the elements, across Kotzebue Sound, while it was debatable whether or not a storm was coming in. The water was rough, the wind hard, and the air cold as we motored away from the village to Bob and Carrie’s fishing camp, where they spent their summers. As we pulled away from shore, Seth pointed out to us where the rising sea was eroding away the land underneath his village, bringing into question whether an area that had supported people since the 15th century would do so through the end of the 21st.

After we crossed the water and waded ashore to meet Bob and Carrie, Seth pushed off to cast his nets in the hopes of bringing home some fish.

The Uhl’s camp was simple, like most camps in the Arctic are, centered around a one-room cabin. After introductions, we sat down and became acquainted over a meal of salmon, dried seal, and beluga muktuk.

Muktuk, for those of you who have not had it, is the skin and blubber of a whale. 

Caribou lone dan ritzman(Image: Dan Ritzman/Sierra Club)

Bob and Carrie made a life in the Arctic by fostering a relationship with the land and the animals they shared it with. Now older, they had increasingly come to rely on their community to supply them with the foods they once gathered themselves. And that was okay.

Except, one of the things they mentioned as we talked was that the seasonal habits of the animals were changing. The beluga, in particular were becoming more difficult for hunters to find.

After finishing our visit and getting back into Seth’s boat, we pulled in his nets and looked at his catch. Among it were fish he mentioned he had not caught this far north before, but that he was increasingly catching more of. Once the catch was stored we headed back to Kotzebue and prepared for our flight next day into the bush and a week long float down the Kokolik.

When we arrived at the airport the next morning, Inupiat hunters were milling about the waiting area and asked us where we were going. “Look for the caribou?” they asked us before we boarded our plane, and took off.

The core of our expedition, our exploration of the Kokolik valley, was successful. We found a land of wolves, wolverine and ptarmigan. We learned the fishing was better elsewhere that time of year, but that we had apparently just missed a salmon run. We found fossils from extinctions past and caches left by those who came before.

When we returned to Kotzebue, the Inupiat hunters were waiting for us. Had we found the caribou?  Did we know where they were, they asked, their faces expressing a mix of both eagerness and concern. Sadly, we told them, we had not. 

Apparently, few had, and that, was unusual. You could feel the disappointment on their faces

I’m sharing this story because perhaps more than any other place the Arctic in its remoteness, its seemingly inviolate nature and unchanging presence, what some might call wildness, best exemplifies the ideal landscape envisioned by Sierra Club’s founder John Muir; exemplifies the preservationist ideal that has been one of the guiding philosophies of our movement since its inception—driven our organization for over a century.

But like the shore line, the beluga and the fisherman’s catch teach us, along with a melting ice pack, melting permafrost, and emerging and increasing incidences of wildlife disease in the region, the arctic is changing. Traditional preservationist approaches of setting aside parks and wilderness areas free from industrial development are no longer guarantees of security for the land and wildlife we value and depend on.

Caribou Herd dan ritzmanA spectacular view of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's Porcupine Caribou herd (Image: Dan Ritzman/Sierra Club)

Each of us is living in a time for which we have no true analog in the human experience to reference. Our world’s climate is changing, and it will continue to change for the foreseeable future. With those changes comes the very real risk of potentially losing the elements of our world that inspire us to do the work we do.

And so the reality of climate change forces preservationists to reconsider their historic approaches. It forces them to ask difficult questions. What do we value more—the idea of wilderness, or the animals, the water, the living, breathing creation that draws us to these areas in the first place, and that provides our communities with a nearly incalculable bounty?

Our civilization depends on healthy and productive landscapes.  While it is not talked about often enough, our civilization, our cultures, our spirits depend on sharing this planet and interacting with other species.

We are in a time of crisis.  We need to make choices that Muir, Roosevelt and others never imagined. If we are to save the lives we value, including our own, then a move from preservation to adaptation seems warranted.

Adaptation includes establishing conservation areas, like Muir championed, but it requires us to go much further and take a more active role in shaping the future of our planet, so that it is not shaped by our past mistake of polluting our atmosphere so much that it begins unraveling the stability that allowed an abundance of life to grow and thrive, including us.

This idea is not without controversy. There are those who continue to see any human engagement with wildlife and their habitats beyond voyeurism as something akin to sinful.  Given what is now at stake, I respectfully disagree.

We are going through a challenging time as a people, as a profession, as a movement.  The world we have loved is disappearing. 

Psychologists talk about the seven stages of grief when coping with tragedy.  I fear many in politics, in society, and in our own movement are still in the denial stage about what is happening around us. And the longer we take to reach acceptance and find hope, the more options will have been lost.

We must begin to move forward into our new world, our new lives.

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation provides us some tools to help us find the hope we need. But we also must gather additional ones, and innovate new approaches to conservation. Someone, probably several people, are the heirs of Aldo Leopold who will articulate a practice of adaptation to address the conservation challenges of the 21th century in the same way he articulated the practice of game management to confront the challenges of the 20th.

Sierra Club wants to support such work.  Through our Resilient Habitats Campaign we have retooled our traditional conservation agenda so that it is approached through the lens of climate adaptation.  It is no longer enough for us to conserve large landscapes and then step back—we must also work to ensure their capacity to support populations of target species and sustain dependent communities.  At the same time, we must limit future greenhouse gas pollution and further climate change by balancing the needs of wildlife with the development of solar, wind, and other clean energy technologies. If we do not, then our work will be even more like that of Sisyphus.

To help achieve our goals, we are sponsoring the development of science informed, coarse scale blueprints to promote habitat resiliency and carbon sequestration in ten priority regions. One of these blueprints, for the Pacific Northwest, has already been presented at the 2011 meeting of the Wildlife Society. Additional blueprints for the Greater Grand Canyon, Greater Yellowstone and elsewhere will be presented at future scientific meetings.

To improve conservation policy, we are currently undertaking projects such as an analysis of the flexibility in The Wilderness Act—to allow for active management in Wilderness Area; to safeguard needed and desired physical features in the face of climate change; and to identify what additional steps may need to be taken so that Wilderness Areas don’t just merely satisfy some misanthropic notion of Eden. A similar analysis is underway for the Endangered Species Act, and when we are finished we will share our findings with policy makers.

We are also actively working to limit the further development of coal, oil, and other fuels that pile more greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere. At the same time, we are forming partnerships with the wind, solar, and other clean energy producers to ensure that these technologies are developed in a way that does not needlessly sacrifice wildlife and their habitat.

These are just a few examples. We are doing what we can.  But we do not have all of the answers, and the only way we will find them is by working with conservation practitioners, with university scientists, with first nations, and with rural communities. If we stop and listen to each other—really listen—if we engage each other with open minds; if we offer our hands and ask “how can we help?” instead of pointing fingers and saying “you should.” If we do these things, then I think we will all have a better chance of finding the answers we need, even if they are not necessarily the answers we want… and our children, and theirs, will be more likely to be able to find the caribou.



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