The United States is celebrating the centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge system this year. It's an especially big deal in Alaska because we have far more refuge lands here than anywhere else in the country.
Alaska Geographic honors the anniversary in its current edition, "Alaska's National Wildlife Refuges."
This handsome little book is chocked full of information and gorgeous photographs that remind us why Alaska's wilderness is special.
"All of these public lands have ecological, spiritual, financial, and cultural value, but nowhere are these treasures so great, and this inheritance so rich, as in the refuges of Alaska," says author Bruce Woods.
Woods is a veteran writer and a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuges. He writes with a flair too often missing from similar volumes, as when he describes the far-flung collection of islands that make up the Homer-based Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge:
"Here winds whip through the grasses of rugged, wave-pounded islands and active volcanoes simmer, venting steam above collars of fog. It is a place of contrasts, where relics of a past war slowly rust in deserted valleys while nearby, great forests of kelp teem with life. It is, and has long been, a place of refuge and has seen some of the most dramatic wildlife conservation stories in the nation's history."
Woods gives readers a comprehensive overview of the Alaska refuges, with diverse topics set out in attractive sidebars and maps. He covers the refuges purpose, history, influential personalities, wildlife and issues, including touchy topics such as the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"So contentious is the argument over oil development on Arctic NWR's coastal plain that advocates on both sides of the issue sometimes allow themselves to be swayed by emotion rather than fact. It has become, in some quarters, a war over symbols rather than science," he writes.
He discusses two other recent refuge controversies (oil industry contamination of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the proposal to build a road across portions of the Izembek Wild-erness) and highlights them as examples of the main challenge facing Alaska refuges:
"How can land managers protect the quality of experience visitors to Alaska's refuges expect and deserve while continuing to provide access?" he asks. "More specifically, how can USFWS manage the increase in public use of refuges now to avoid having to decrease public use after it has reached unacceptable levels?"
The book makes it clear that those uses go far beyond the pleasures of recreational hikers and hunters.
Woods stresses that many refuges, particularly those in the Interior, safeguard the resources underpinning traditional subsistence economies.
In addition, the refuges guard animals and plants. Many are productive natural factories churning out fish and fowl with a worldwide impact. For example, birds banded in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, nearly 9 million acres of boreal forest and waterways 100 miles north of Fairbanks, have shown up in 45 other states, eight Canadian provinces and as far afield as Russia and Columbia.
The center of the book includes descriptions of each of the 16 refuges with emphasis on their unique attributes. Awareness of their use potential tends to be low and localized because only two, Kenai and Tetlin, are accessible from the road system. Included are tips for travelers, emphasizing warnings about bugs, bears and utter wilderness isolation.
Woods goes beyond information for visitors, giving insight into what it is like to work in refuge management.
The last chapter, "Refuge People Today," profiles Lee Anne Ayres, a flying biologist at Selawik; Orville Lind, a refuge information technician at Becharof and the Alaska Peninsu-la; Vernon Byrd, a manager with the Alaska Maritime NWR; and Mike Rearden, who was born in Fairbanks, raised in Homer and has worked for the Yukon Delta NWR since 1980.
Lind eloquently describes the importance of community relations, specifically, winning the trust of Native villagers within refuges.
"Our job was difficult," he says. "We were trying to gather information, but whenever one of us would show up, the locals would suddenly become very quiet. ... They feared they would get in trouble for whatever they might tell us."
"We took that time, village time, to help the people understand why we need to do surveys, and how our biologists can use this information to make wise conservation decisions so that locals and their children can continue their subsistence lifestyles, and so others can continue to enjoy Alaska's resources."
Their passionate views of their work and the purpose behind it speak volumes.
Byrd, now working in Homer, describes his years in the field: "I'd worked in the Aleutians when I was in the Navy, I'd been to Adak and Shemya, and the Aleutians seemed like paradise to me. But I knew Buldir would be the best of the best, it was my Aleutian Mecca. When I landed there in 1972, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."
Rearden sums up their motives: "From my personal perspective, the refuge system is a way of guaranteeing that future generations of Alaskans and of people from around the globe will still have wild lands and wildlife available to them. ... I believe there's adequate room on our refuges for sport uses and nonconsumptive uses and subsistence uses if we manage our habitat and wildlife properly."
The book is a bit pricey for nonsubscribers, but it is a well-done reference that will continue to entertain and inform long after this anniversary year.
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