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Wilderness Blog

It’s All Connected: Why the War in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina Are Bad for the Environment

Thirty Alaskan small business owners received federal loans for companies affected by the 9/11 attacks, according to an AP story in the Anchorage Daily News. It may seem strange that a bush plane operator in North Pole, Alaska, could qualify for 9/11 aid. But with people across the country suddenly terrified and bracing for economic blows, the appeal of trip to the wilderness on a tiny plane apparently shrank, and his business needed help. It’s just one example of the interconnectedness endemic this teeming cultural ecosystem that is the United States. This is slightly off the wilderness topic, but bear with me, because it’s very much about environmental policies in general. Things don’t happen in a vacuum.

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How Wild is Your Elephant?

It's been almost two weeks since the "Re-wilding North America" essay began raising hackles around the world (including on New West), prompting headlines like "North America, Home to Lions and Elephants." But this whole idea of "Pleistocene re-wilding"--which is really a sort of extreme version of the species re-introduction programs that have brought wolves, lynx, and other animals back to the West and are supported by groups like the Rewilding Institute—raises some fascinating questions that have been ignored in the ensuing scare over elephants running amok in Wal-Mart parking lots. Can you truly "re-wild" a place, and if so, is that more or less important than attempting to preserve the few wild places that remain? And, as Josh Donlan himself asks, "Will you settle for an American wilderness emptier than it was just 100 centuries ago?"

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“There are some places we just shouldn’t go”

I was sitting in a bar in Anchorage the other night, talking to a very interesting man. We'd had several drinks and I'm assuming our conversation was off-the-record, so I'll just call him Pete for now. Pete has lived in Alaska for most of his life, spent more than a decade with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has represented the state in many international treaties and has been a major player in ocean fisheries governance. He's highly sensitive to industry, but he's also deeply concerned with conservation issues. He's worked for Democrats and Republicans, for environmentalists and big business. He's seen most of Alaska's wilderness, several times over, and he can rattle off tantalizing backcountry itineraries faster than you can figure out how to spell them. So after he'd drained his gin and tonic, I asked Pete if he thought we should drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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Flaws (Gasp!) in the Wilderness Act

Wilderness has special status in this country, both psychically and legally, and so the question of whether mountain biking or skiing or other activities should be permitted in wilderness areas is in some ways unique. The Wilderness Act of 1964 recognized a need to keep some parts of the country off-limits to development, "in order to insure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural conditions" (Section 2(C)). This explicit reference to preservation amounts to a recognition of the intrinsic value of wilderness—meaning that wilderness has an inherent value, beyond anything we might be able to do with it or use it for.

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The Gale Norton Paradox

I’ve just returned to Reykjavik after a week traveling around Iceland, through dramatically varied landscapes: glaciers and their flat, wide outwash plains; rolling tundra; barren, rock-strewn moonscapes; wetlands spilling onto lava fields framed by steaming vats of boiling mud; snow-spattered mountains looming over fjords. Weather can change in minutes from 65 degrees and sunny to 50 degrees with whipping wind and rain. It’s a lot to absorb in a week, though a few cappuccinos in a smoke-filled coffeehouse should help me digest. I’m looking forward to two days in civilization to wash clothes and send email before heading out for a backpacking trip across highland wilderness. Out into nature, back to civilization. Out. Back. Rare is the civilized person who does not think this way, regardless of how much she might love and care for nature.

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Wild Ice

Yesterday I drove east—counterclockwise—on Iceland’s Ringroad, from Reykjavik to a small harbor town called Hofn about seven hours away if you’re not stopping every few minutes to gape at the scenery. Mountains jump out of the plains, which in places are huge expanses of black sand—10,000 years of glacial sediment accumulation. Peeking through the jagged rocks are edges of the glacier, which covers 1900 square miles. Ice falls up to 15 miles wide coat the slopes all the way down to where the vegetation begins on the flat plain below. Between wide avenues of sharply scored ice the mountains end in steep grassy hills. Further east, arctic terns raise their chicks next to a lagoon teeming with little icebergs, some of which are as large as a small boat. It’s an awe-inspiring landscape, and appears as wild as anything I’ve seen. But is it wilderness?

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Narrowing the Wilderness Focus

Writing about wilderness makes one thing very clear: It's tricky to separate wilderness from other environmental issues, and from broader Western issues in general. Start talking about mountain biking in wilderness areas and you're immediately drawn into discussions of open space use, growth and sprawl problems, decision-making processes, environmental politics, and on and on and on.

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If You Unbuild It, Will They Go Away?

The Denver Post reported Friday that parts of Colorado's St. Vrain State Park might be "sliced by a slab of roadway" to help divert traffic from a clogged stretch of I-25. Proponents of the road, in Weld County, say the fast-growing county needs an alternative to the interstate, that it will improve traffic flow, and that a new 2000-home development north of the park will only increase the congestion. On the other side, opponents argue that traffic on the road, which would cut a mile-long swath through the park, will disturb sensitive terrain, including the breeding and nesting grounds of heron. They say the road—which would carry 15,000 cars a day by 2025--will destroy a last oasis of wildlife and wetlands in an area increasingly defined by sprawl. Reading the story, with its accompanying photos of nesting herons and the river that the new road would cross, made me wonder which direction we're headed. Will natural areas always lose out to growth? Are we moving toward a time when wild places are increasingly revered and valued, or a time when development always proceeds no matter the price?

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Cowboys and Indians: Turning Over in their Graves

In my room at the Steamboat Grand was a copy of a magazine called Cowboys and Indians, which bills itself as "the premier magazine of the West." I’m sure this is not news to many New West readers and I’m simply the last to browse through a copy. But wow. Wow. The first page of the glossy, heavy-stock mag is an ad for Bohlin watches, made in Switzerland but touted as "the spirit of the West" for reasons that are unclear (though the men’s watch features a sheriff’s star on the face). Turn the page and you’ll find a two-page spread for Double D Ranch clothing and accessories: a blond model stands in what might be a barn, splayed against some pipes, wearing spike-healed black suede boots with—you guessed it—fringe and rhinestones on top, a woven wavy skirt (very tribal), a massive studded leather belt, a tight tank top (no bra) and a huge turquoise choker.

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Land of the Free

Three days into my tranquil Okie getaway, I was reminded in an email from an editor at the New York Times that things aren't always what they seem. "so I'm listening to npr on tuesday morning," he wrote, "and there's a feature about chicken farm runoff from arkansas polluting...tenkiller lake. it used to be so clear you could scuba dive in it, they said. now it's filled with phosphorous." Enjoy your vacation.

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