I crossed paths with Dan Ashe this summer as we drifted down the memory lane of a deeply moving wilderness experience in Alaska.
Ashe, who rose from the ranks of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 to become its 16th director, finally got his chance to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in September 2013. He flew to the farthest corner of northeast Alaska to accompany his son on a caribou hunt.
They would seek their game on the coastal plain north of the Brooks Range, the northernmost major mountain divide in the world.
“We camped and hunted for five days, just outside the refuge’s western boundary,” Ashe recalled in an address in July to the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference in Duluth, Minnesota. “Caribou were spilling from the refuge on their east-to-west migration – groups of dozens and hundreds and thousands, wave upon wave.”
Before contacting Ashe for a one-on-one interview after his speech, I boarded my bush plane of recollections to the Kongakut River and a three-week expedition in 1991 from the shadow of 9,000-foot peaks on Arctic Divide to the Arctic Ocean.
I had traveled to research stories for The Spokesman-Review’s special section “The Last Refuge” published that fall.
Congress was in a heated debate on whether to allow oil exploration on a 1.5-million acre coastal plain portion of the 19.6-million acre refuge – the largest protected terrestrial area in the United States.
Although nobody knows for sure how much oil is in the area, U. S. Geological Survey seismic testing had indicated a 19 percent chance of finding oil reserves up to 10 billion barrels.
But the Department of Interior’s final environmental impact statement more decisively documented the coastal plain as being the most biologically productive part of the Arctic Refuge. The coastal plain is like the heart of a sanctuary that spreads 200-by-200-miles.
Conservationists said then, and continue to say ANWR is too special, too fragile and too important as a wildlife refuge to be infiltrated by development.
Congress turned down efforts to explore for oil on ANWR’s coastal plain in the 1990s, and again after a major surge of interest amid sky-high fuel prices in 2005.
Ashe, nominated for USFWS director by President Obama, resigned from his post with the election of President Donald Trump. But as the new administration this year has sparked new interest in drilling for ANWR oil, Ashe has stepped up to renew the cause for protection.
Ashe and I both had the experience of tapping the work of state and federal fish and wildlife professionals before making personal connections to ANWR. We both pored through documents and interviews before sloshing through the tundra and swishing through buzzing clouds of mosquitoes.
And we both returned to civilization smitten with the experience.
While beyond the reach of most humans, the refuge attracts millions of birds – approximately 200 species – that migrate to every state, and six of the seven continents.
Spring in ANWR advances with quantum leaps of sunlight. The arctic receives the same amount of sunshine in a year as the tropics, but it’s all concentrated into a brief summer ideally suited for the rearing of wildlife.
Some species migrate thousands of miles just to lay their eggs or drop their calves in the arctic. The semi-palmated sandpiper comes all the way from the coast of Venezuela. The offspring of these birds and other creatures develop rapidly in the vigor – including the bugs! – promoted by round-the-clock daylight.
The coastal plain portion of the arctic receives only 6 to 7 inches of rainfall a year, only slightly more than the Mojave Desert. Yet the underpinning of permafrost keeps most of the precipitation at the surface in meltwater pools and puddles among the knobby sedge tussocks. The result is a rich wetland effect that’s attractive to tundra swans and 18 species of breeding shorebirds – also peregrine falcons and 18 other species of raptors that nest on the North Slope.
ANWR is home to muskox, arctic char and all three native species of bear – black, brown and polar.
Perhaps the most moving of all spectacles in the refuge is the annual migration of caribou.
The Porcupine Caribou Herd’s far-flung contingents trickle in from south of the Brooks Range and the Yukon until 110,000 or more caribou swarm in massive groups on the arctic plain. Some caribou travel as much as 2,700 miles a year – farther than any other terrestrial animal – because they are genetically programmed to make this spring trek to traditional birthing grounds.
Pregnant cows come first to the nearly flat coastal tundra, where they are less susceptible to wolves and grizzlies that prefer denning areas higher in the foothills. Virtually the entire crop of 50,000 calves is born within a week around early June.
At two days a caribou calf can outrun a human. In a week it can keep up with its mother, and heads off on a life of endless roaming that began on ANWR.
Also endless is the pursuit of oil reserves under the tundra.
Conservation groups say the Trump administration and the president himself have demonstrated interest in pursuing oil development in the refuge.
The Wilderness Society is concerned that tax reform and the budget process will be manipulated to open the refuge to drilling, said Lydia Weiss, the group’s director for addressing Congressional actions and White House policies affecting wildlands.
The Congressional Budget Office has suggested the drilling in the refuge has the potential to deliver $2.5 billion to the national treasury, she said.
“But that’s like phony budgeting because even the first of that money wouldn’t show up for a very long time, maybe a decade,” she said. “The infrastructure has to be there first and then you have to find a company that wants to go through the harsh conditions of drilling in the arctic when it’s a lot easier and cheaper to do it elsewhere.”
Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash) stood up to efforts to develop ANWR in 2005. He’s among a handful of Republicans supporting the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act, which would permanently protect 1.4 million acres of the coastal plain as wilderness. America has other surer choices for energy, he said in materials sent to The Spokesman-Review by media aide Breanna Deutsch.
Technology has reduced the footprint oil development would have on the refuge compared with the scenario laid out in the 1980s. However, development would still require a web of hundreds of miles of pipelines from dozens of well pads, along with airstrips, fish-endangering gravel quarries and other infrastructure that clashes with the refuge qualities.
The footprint for nature and wildlife also is getting smaller, Ashe said. “The American public can’t lose site of the big picture,” he told me.
It took all of human history, nearly 200,000 years, for people to reach a population of one billion in 1800, he said.
“Then, it took only another 127 years, about the time my father was born, in 1929, for the human population to reach 2 billion. Today, we stand at 7.5 billion. And if I’m so fortunate to see my 90th birthday, I’ll be sharing the planet with about 9.5 billion fellow humans.”
People are the dominant ecological force on the planet, he said.
Permanent protection of wild lands becomes more crucial as humans occupy more and more of Earth’s ecological space, he said.
Ashe and I both recall being amazed while trekking through the arctic tundra at the biomass of insects. Tons of mosquitoes, black flies and other bugs fill the air to nourish some critters and menace others. Yet even the herds of caribou – sometimes so massive they resemble smoke spreading across the tundra – are no match for people.
Ashe said 93 percent of the planet’s mammal biomass is comprised of humans and the animals that humans eat and keep as pets.
“All the other mammals – all the elephants, all the giraffes, all the lions, all the hippos and rhinos, all the whales and dolphins, all the apes and monkeys, all the squirrels and marmots and mice – all of them are the remaining 7 percent!
“We’re running out of space and time,” he said.
Ashe stands with the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, Rep. Reichert and other Congressmen and conservation groups in contending that ANWR should not be at risk for what could amount to oil reserves that would match the nation’s energy appetite for a few months.
Proponents of development have their eye on a relatively small portion of the vast refuge on the 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain within ANWR. It’s often called the “ten-oh-two area” referring to the 1002 section of the act that set aside the coastal plain for more study when the refuge was created.
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 declared the 19.6 million-acre refuge and also established 7.16 million acres of the refuge as wilderness, later named the Mollie Beattie Wilderness.
But the coastal plain was tabled for further study because of the contentious wildlife versus development debate.
“The coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge,” Ashe said. “Think about it this way: The human body is a collection of cells – 37.2 trillion cells. So, from a cellular standpoint, each of us is an expansive, magnificent ecosystem. If you were asked to give only 2 billion of your body’s cells, that’s a small request…
“But then you find out that the 2 billion cells they want is your heart… Suddenly, it’s not so reasonable.”
His advocacy for ANWR is professional, not political, Ashe said. His convictions were sealed by being there and absorbing its values.
“At first, it looked as though the hunt would be easy,” he said, returning to his hunting trip memories of caribou he’d observed by the hundreds in 2013.
“But they’re not easy to stalk. There isn’t much to call cover on the coastal plain, and my son later described navigating the tundra as like walking on a surface of soggy mattresses filled with basketballs.”
His son finally filled his tag after the two of them belly-crawled across the tundra for nearly a mile to get within a hundred yards for the shot.
Ashe said he relished the satisfying grunt work of backpacking bull caribou quarters three miles back to their camp.
“We don’t need the oil,” he said. “We have a lot, and we have alternatives. We need the wild! It’s disappearing. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
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