Don't look for the frontier in Alaska

  • Tim Lydon

 

Alaska. The word tumbles out like a wild stream, carrying a cascade of images: grizzly bears, glaciers, vast mountains, Native villages. It’s the Alaska we believe in, an American Eden for lovers of wilderness. But as change sweeps the state, the veneer is cracking.

In the southeastern panhandle, the famed Inside Passage bordering British Columbia, cruise-ship traffic now brings a million visitors annually. All summer, big ships dwarf small downtowns in Juneau and other communities, while throngs of visitors cram the narrow streets. And it’s not just the economic engine that revs at a frantic pace. In all directions, buses, helicopters, planes and boats race from town, bringing thousands on increasingly compact “adventures of a lifetime.” By ocean, they seek out whales or salmon; by road, they tour the sights; by air, they fly low sorties over mountains and glaciers -- and their noise destroys the serenity of the once-quiet hiking trails.

As big ships dominate waterways, smaller tour boats seek remote bays. But their industry has grown, too, and now the bays all seem full. When we camp along shore, even in remote wilderness, tour boats anchor nearby and naturalists lead groups ashore. When we anchor our sailboat in quiet coves, we look across twilit waters at cruise ships lit-up like floating cities, then secure our dishes against their big wakes.

We have our own brand of sprawl, too. Faster, bigger boats improve access to distant bays, overcoming rough seas the same way modern off-road vehicles conquered the West’s backcountry. New cabins and lodges appear, filling the undeveloped spaces between mines, clear-cuts, hydro projects and roads. Along 150 miles of mainland near Juneau, only Holkham Bay lacks development. Boats of all sizes visit, prompting proposals for a new lodge.

Meanwhile, big multinationals want to tear into south-central Alaska’s Chuitna and Matanuska valleys to mine coal for Chinese power plants. Already, pollution from the Asian coal rush puts mercury into our wild salmon, and our diets. In southwest Alaska, Bristol Bay’s salmon are threatened by the mammoth Pebble Mine proposal. Networks of roads and gold, copper and molybdenum mines are planned across the state, and Shell will pierce the Arctic Ocean’s floor for more oil.

But the immediate changes from tourism, development, mining and drilling are eclipsed by the transformation wrought by changes in the climate. Along coastal Alaska, our glaciers are undergoing indescribable wastage. In Prince William Sound, the Columbia Glacier has shrunk by a whopping10 miles in 30 years. South of Juneau, an enormous tidewater glacier recently slumped more than 200 vertical feet in 12 months. Earlier this decade, I watched as over a mile of ice, in some places as thick as 800 feet, vanished in a mere 18 months, making even our newest maps obsolete.

I’m not the only one with map problems. In Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range, rapidly thawing permafrost is unleashing immense landslides, reshaping mountainsides. Similarly, hotter, bigger fires re-write the vegetative maps of Alaska’s interior. The stories only hint at the upheaval across the north.

And things are getting downright weird in the Arctic. Ever hear of a grolar bear? As disappearing sea ice drives polar bears south onto land, and warmer weather lures grizzly bears northward, interbreeding has created a new animal with features of both species. The far north’s character is further altered as moose and red fox follow trees spreading onto the tundra, and ice-free seas enable salmon to colonize arctic streams.

Many species can’t adapt. While the polar bear’s plight is well known, the habitat of two seal species is also disappearing with melting sea ice. In western Alaska, shrinking late-summer ice forces thousands of walruses into dense congregations ashore, when they would ordinarily be dispersed among floating ice. In this brand-new phenomenon, stampedes leave hundreds dead, mostly young, while the crowding puts pressure on clam beds near the shore.

In the interior’s boreal forest, caribou struggle against warmer winters, which bring more freezing rain and autumn thaws than anyone can remember. Ground lichens, the caribou’s winter staple, become inaccessible, encased in ice, and starvation and lower birthrates shrink the iconic herds.

Alaska Natives also have worries. Accelerated erosion from disappearing sea ice and melting permafrost threatens scores of coastal villages. It’s not just homes, traditions and livelihoods sinking into the sea. Collapsing shores disgorge a wealth of artifacts. As they disappear, so do connections with the past and discoveries about the continent’s early people.

In Alaska, we eat and breathe the changes. This is still a great place to live, but as the wildness fades, it’s getting harder to call it a frontier.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He writes in Girdwood, Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.