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  • Ken Ilgunas

Dear Gates of the Arctic

[The Gates of the Arctic National Park—the park that I worked for the previous two summers—is thinking about installing four permanent weather monitoring stations. This is the revised version of a letter that I recently sent to park administrators.]

To the Gates of the Arctic administration:

I am writing this letter to express my opposition to the placement of weather monitoring stations in the Gates of the Arctic National Park. I have read the June 2010 “Environmental Assessment of the Climate Monitoring Program” in which the national parks, preserves and monuments involved have detailed the proposed plans and have considered, what they perceive to be, the stations’ potential drawbacks. The Assessment aptly describes and duly considers the impact the four stations may have on vegetation, soundscape, etc., but I feel it has left the stations’ most serious drawbacks unacknowledged. Explaining what I believe those drawbacks are will be the focus of my letter.

The stations will be—to my knowledge—the first permanent structures that Gates administration erects in the park. Why this historic event wasn’t mentioned in even a footnote in a 106-page document was surprising to say the least. Perhaps the authors of the Assessment saw little reason to point this out because park employees, after all, daily interact with the park in ways that are barely “primitive,” and hardly in accord with primeval wilderness. The author might point out that the park owns and maintains several cabins, or that it uses planes to transport rangers and conduct aerial surveys on an almost daily basis at certain times of the year. In other words, erecting stations in the park may be “no big deal” because we’ve already used the land in ways that are antithetical to wilderness. Thus—the argument goes—because the park has never really been “pure” or entirely “wild,” Gates administration should not trouble themselves with questions of purity and wildness whenever important work needs to be done. I disagree if this line of reasoning is being used. I feel that the difference between maintaining a fifty-year-old cabin (that was built with crude tools well before the inception of the park) and erecting a permanent structure is so huge that the two types of “usage” are hardly comparable. I should add that planes, however intrusive and annoying-to-the-ear as they may be, are necessary so long as the park faces threats that its rangers and scientists must confront. Plus, a plane flying over and landing in the park—there one moment and gone the next—is a completely different type of intrusion than a hunk of metal deliberately placed by park managers that will sully pristine vistas forever.

But I am not as concerned with the loss of aesthetic purity (an unsightly weather station on an otherwise untrammeled mountaintop), as much as I am concerned about the loss of “purity in policy.” The stations break tradition not only with how previous administrations managed the park, but the decision to erect a structure is also a clear rupture with the ideals on which the park was founded. While I believe that the stations’ physical impact will be minor, the decision to install them is an enormous change in tradition, policy, mission and values. It’s a decision that strays from the park’s long-held policy to remove signs of human habitation; not to bring in its own.

The park—since its inception—seems to have managed itself by managing less—a principle, says environmental historian Roderick Nash, upon which “hangs the fate of everything the wilderness preservation movement has tried to achieve.” The stations and other actions taken by administration lead me to believe that we are too quick to act when the park and the animals and plants therein would—in many ways—be better off left alone.

Again, I understand that the stations’ physical impact will be minimal, and that the data the stations gather may benefit the the country and the planet; yet I feel that the stations will have a negative impact in ways that cannot be measured. The negative impact that I speak of is far more difficult to measure than, say, a station’s impact on nearby vegetation or the harm a helicopter does to a soundscape. The consequences I speak of have to do with changes in perception, imagination and reputation. While I understand how difficult it may be to gauge these consequences, I’m still somewhat baffled that the Assessment failed to even passively mention these. In fact, I think it bears mentioning that the Assessment seems to lack the faintest trace of humanity. It appears to have been conceived—not in the mind of a human being—but by a robot from some sleepy cubicle in a windowless government office incapable of imagining what’s really at stake. I understand that the Assessment is protocol and is how things are “normally done,” but the dry, calculated language of the Assessment—full of facts, figures tables and maps—is, to me, representative of how Gates administration perceives the park. The Gates, to them, is anything but “sacred.” Rather, the park exists for visitor enjoyment, scientific exploration, and as a resource for hunters and local subsistence communities. Its value is measured by things that can only be quantified. From both the language of the Assessment and my personal experiences with Gates administration, the park, I believe, is rarely thought of as anything other than a “resource” by the people who manage it. The great conservationist thinkers—Thoreau, Muir, Abbey, and Bob Marshall included—did not think of wildlands or parks as “resources.” They thought of them as sacred places that ought not be decorated with the furnishings of civilization. The stations, I realize, may not cause much “aesthetic damage,” but their presence will alter the park in the imaginations of the citizens who own it. Just as if we were to touch up a historic work of art or revise a phrase in a nation’s founding document, while the artwork or document may not thereafter look any different, by imposing our vision—ever so slightly—on a work of genius, the park, like them, will begin to shed the air of a sacred object.

Arctic explorer and conservationist, Bob Marshall, said, “For me…the most important passion of life is the overpowering desire to escape periodically from the clutches of a mechanistic civilization. The enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness.” I cannot fathom how the stations are in accord with the values—values that men like Marshall and women like Mardy Murie championed—on which the park was founded. If the administration strays too far from the park that the founders envisioned, I worry the image and reputation of the Gates will not only be put at stake, but the park will soon be at the mercy of future and potentially intrusive scientific endeavors, enhanced visitor accommodations, and our “mechanistic civilization” that creeps in and corrodes the park’s wilderness character.

Anyone who’s been to the Gates and to the parks in the lower-48 knows that the Gates is a park unlike any other. The parks in the lower-48 have roads, facilities, and trails. They’re oftentimes overrun with visitors. Forest fires do not reign free; they’re prescribed. Predatory animals are sometimes tranquilized and moved when in the vicinity of prey species with vulnerable populations. The Gates, however—as the Assessment points out—is “acknowledged as the premier Wilderness park in the national park system.” An 8.5 million acre stretch of wild land with animals living and dying with no human interference is practically unheard of these days. Gates administration should remind themselves that they’re noble protectors of one of last great stretches of wildland on earth, and that they should—because of the park’s unique status as the “premier Wilderness park”—govern itself differently. Administration should not justify that it’s okay to erect weather stations because all or most other parks have stations. Other parks, rather, should look to the Gates to see how the “premier wilderness park” acts.

I think the decision to place weather stations should be weighed with the Park Service (and the world) as a whole in mind. With so many parks over-developed and over-administered, shouldn’t we do everything we can to keep just one park as wild as it can conceivably be? Shouldn’t we play by rules that are different from other parks? Shouldn’t we be highly adverse and skeptical of suggestions that may tarnish the park’s wilderness character in the slightest? We can do everything in our power to keep the Gates the way it’s been for millennia, or we can ever-so-slowly but ever-so-surely evolve as other parks have evolved: like them, we can—with each passing year—accumulate more facilities, technology, roads, and trails; we can drift further and further away from the founders’ ideals to accommodate mass utilization; we can stop thinking of the park as a place that is sacred and more a giant playground, science lab, or game preserve in which scientists, rangers, hunters, and the public exploit rather than visit.

I believe the scientists involved in the plans have good intentions and honorable goals. Their research, in many ways, I’m sure, helps the whole of the park staff protect the park. So I feel that most any proposed scientific project that directly or indirectly helps protect the park ought to be welcomed and encouraged by park administration. I’m opposed to the installation of the weather monitoring stations, however, largely because I cannot fathom how the stations will help protect the park. Surely climate change statistics will help us achieve a better understanding of global warming and surely the statistics will help us come to determinations about how climate change may be affecting the park’s animals and vegetation. But how will the park actually benefit from the data? Surely we cannot install cooling systems over all 8.5 million acres of the park to keep the permafrost from melting. Nor can we—or should we—manipulate animal migration routes which climate change may disturb, as the Assessment points out. Perhaps the data, though, will help legislators craft a bill to combat climate change. This would be a worthy endeavor, yet I highly doubt missing data from the Gates would inhibit the passage of such a bill. Because I fail to see how the stations can help the Gates, I can’t help but deem that the proposal is in direct conflict with the Wilderness Act because the stations do not appear to be “necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.” But I do not wish to dwell on legal concerns. The stations, to me, are not about a breach of law, but a breach of values.

Perhaps the most important duty for Gates administration is not just to preserve the wild, but to preserve our idea of what a wild place is. Wilderness philosopher, Jack Turner, says, “Looking at photographs of arches or pictographs, reading a guide book, examining maps, receiving instructions on where to go, where to camp, what to expect, how to act—and being watched over the entire time by a cadre of rangers—is now the normal mode of experience. Most people know no other.” Our idea of wilderness is no longer, as Mardy Murie says, “empty of technology and full of life,” nor a sanctuary where, Bob Marshall says, people come “to rest from the endless chain of mechanization and artificiality which bounds their lives.” Nowadays, our idea of a wild place includes the roads, facilities, guard rails and ambitious management plans that visitors see everywhere in national parks—our “wild places.” The threat of forgetting what’s wild is a real threat. Because people have grown accustomed to “wild places” that have been diluted, declawed, and defanged into national parks, few will ever know what a wild place really looks and feels like. And because few know what a wild place looks or feels like, few will know that a wild place is worth protecting. Turner says that “Intimacy with the fake will not save the real… It is more likely to produce a desire for more fakes.” Unless we vigilantly maintain the Gates’s wilderness character, our country will lose not only one of its last wild places, but also the knowledge and sensations that can only be taught and provoked by “undefiled panoramas” in untrammeled wilderness.

Think of how easily things are forgotten. Think of our skies 150 years ago. From end to end it was sometimes darkened by billion-strong flocks of passenger pigeons. Some say there could have been as many as five billion in North America. But in just a century we overtook their habitats and hunted every last one to extinction. Or think of how it was once common to take in the view of a million stars from almost any porch in America on almost any night. Now, because the great majority of our population lives within a short distance of a smog-producing, light-polluted metropolitan center, only a select few get to nightly see the splendor of Orion’s Belt stretched across the sky. Skies without stars and great flocks of birds have become the norm. And because people today do not know that they’ve been deprived of pleasures enjoyed by past generations, few complain or wish to do anything about it. Soon, we will not know what a wild place should look like just as many don’t know what a clean, healthy, and vibrant sky should look like. And soon, even our “wild” places will bear the signs of an omnipresent government and the contrivances crafted by the ambitious hand of man. And it will all be considered normal.

I am opposed to the stations largely because of my personal experiences in parks of the lower-48—once beautiful places that have fallen from their state of grace—and my many outings in the Gates of the Arctic as a civilian and ranger. My first visit to the Gates was in June of 2005 when I worked at the truck stop in Coldfoot. My first real hike was in the Gates when I climbed a mountain just west of Wiseman. On that trip I saw no sign of human impact. I spotted just one plane. I came across a band of Dall sheep ewes that looked at me as if they’d never before seen a human. That hike profoundly changed my life. Not only did I come down from that mountain a different man, but it fostered in me a deep respect for pure, untrammeled wilderness—enough so that I would, over the years, dedicate my time and energies to restoring and protecting wild places. Over the next five years, I’d live in the arctic seasonally, including two summers as a backcountry ranger for the Gates in 2008 and 2009. Over those years, I developed a sort of “intimacy” with some of the arctic’s rivers, mountains, and animals and—with that—a fear of the forces that threaten to defile their otherwise undisturbed existence.

At Marion Creek—where the Coldfoot rangers live—in just a couple years I saw the trail to the Marion Creek waterfall turned into a bulldozer-wide mud-road blazed by gold miners. At the truck stop at Coldfoot, I’d see pick-up truck after pick-up truck come through with their beds loaded with carcasses and antlers of the caribou that they “hunted” from the driver-side window. While the mining and the killing occurred outside the park, it’s a fitting reminder of how vulnerable even one of hardiest landscapes on earth is when it’s at the mercy of entrepreneurial forces.

Unlike my hiking trip that first summer in ‘05, I spent two 8-day-long patrols on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River last summer where I observed more than 50 planes on each patrol. And I heard an equally troubling amount of planes on the Alatna and Kobuk rivers. It’s difficult to feel what Bob Marshall felt—what people yearn to feel in places like the Gates—when you’re continually reminded of the “mechanization and artificiality” of civilization screaming overhead. Many of those planes, I was later told, were likely manned by Park Service staff doing sheep surveys. On another occasion, after casually telling park administration about a wolf that had curiously (but not aggressively) followed me and my partner down a rarely-visited river valley, we got email inquiries within a week from a park administrator wondering whether it should be shot (albeit with rubber bullets). The Gates faces many threats, and among them, I believe, are its sometimes overly-ambitious, trigger-happy protectors. While we have legitimate reason to worry about climate change disturbing our park, I think we have just as much reason to be concerned about our own relationship with it.

A business or a foundation might best function when ambitious and action-minded people are pulling the levers, but a park should be managed by thoughtful, deliberative men and women who not only understand the intangible values of the park, but who—most importantly—love the park as they might love a person, a country, or a home. I feel the plants and animals should be considered the park’s real owners, and we, just visitors who dare not meddle in work only suited for deities.

In just a few of years I have seen considerable change in the park and in the arctic, and I worry that the stations will be the first of many future incursions. Any casual observer of history knows the Gates will someday be at the mercy of encroaching human settlements, hot-headed mineral and resource robbers, and invasive technologies. I feel the Gates ought to have a pure and principled policy and tradition in place to best repel the advances of a mercilessly exploitative and avaricious civilization that will be at the park’s doorstep sooner than later.

The Gates, to me, is a holy place; and holy places, I believe, should not be subjected to intrusive scientific endeavors, commercial exploitation, guard rails, signs, weather stations and—most importantly—compromise. The Gates should be protected and treasured as a sanctuary; and its spotless splendor kept out of reach from the oily touch of man.

Let’s keep it wild,

Ken Ilgunas

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