An Alaska wildlife refuge deserves our protection

 

I grew up in Oakland, California, and was blessed to live close to wide-open spaces and enjoy acres of land on my parent's woodland ranch. It's these experiences that inspired my desire to help people, especially fellow African-Americans, discover the outdoors. It's also why I treasure the American concept of "wilderness," a word that signifies something very specific in our environmental laws –– granting the highest level of protection for our country's wildest places.

Recently, in a historic move, President Obama recommended wilderness designation for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By doing this, he raised the hackles of those who would rather see the refuge opened up to oil and gas drilling. He also mobilized people who treasure the refuge in its natural state; a flotilla of paddling Seattle "kayaktivists" has been trying to block a massive drilling rig that has a summer permit to drill for oil off the Arctic coast.

It is almost impossible to imagine how drilling in this special place could coexist with its wildness. The refuge includes vast swaths of never-logged boreal forest and a portion of the Brooks Range before sweeping north to the coastal lagoons, barrier lands and bays fronting on the Arctic Ocean.

The coastal plain is dominated by migrating wildlife, and for most, the coastal plain is where their life begins. In fact, the Native Gwich'in people refer to it as just that: the "sacred place where life begins." For centuries, it has been vital to Native culture and subsistence living.

Last summer, I was lucky enough to travel through the Arctic Refuge, getting to meet local people and experience a place dominated by wildlife. I came to realize the two have coexisted peacefully for millennia. Here's how Princess Lucaj, a Gwich'in activist and artist, put it: "We must recognize that we have equal rights. Our stories speak to the way the caribou taught us how to treat them, how to hunt and respect them."
She continued, "The Porcupine caribou herd has a right to continue to utilize its calving grounds, and the Gwich'in have the right to protect their main food source. If you had a garden that provided most of the food for your family, you wouldn't let someone build a pipeline over it, right?"

I felt the power of that interconnectedness at the foot of the Brooks Range, where roaming animals looked at home in this vast and fragile place. When I was camped along the Achilik River, the hillsides would suddenly fill with migrating caribou and their young. Seeing these animals made me think of the stories of the great bison herds that once migrated across the Great Plains. We almost wiped those animals out; but so far, we have refrained from making that mistake with the great herds of caribou that for millennia have roamed the Arctic plain.

When a curious grizzly bear ventured near our camp, I was reminded that out here, I am not at the top of the food chain. That reminder might just be the essence of wilderness. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge inspires us because it reveals an elemental connection between people and nature.

That connection is more important today than ever before in our wired world. President Obama's wilderness recommendation for the Arctic Refuge is an acknowledgement that protecting wild places is important not just for the places themselves, but also for the people who live there. For visitors, America's outdoors provides opportunities for building community, for healing and for new experiences. Through my work to reconnect African-Americans with the outdoors, I've seen the benefits of tapping into the power of nature.

The act of getting outdoors in the wild involves taking risks, acknowledging a history and a culture that haven't always been welcoming to all groups. America's parks, monuments and other public lands still do not reflect the diversity of our country, and there are still too many people who don't have easy access to safe places outside.

It is essential that we continue to build our legacy of protected places even as we work to strengthen the connection between Americans and their public lands. Adding to our network of neighborhood parks, national forests, and wilderness areas is an important way to open doors to the outside.

When I think back to my visit to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I realize I may have been one of the first African-American women to gaze upon the coastal plain in its wild state. I fervently hope I am not the last.

Rue Mapp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. She is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a community that reconnects African-Americans with natural spaces and one another. She lives in Oakland, California.

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