Local author explores Arctic refuge issues
Special to The Aspen Times
Carbondale author and adventurer Jon Waterman proved long ago his ability with words, describing engrossing adventures that ranged geographically from Baja California to the top of North America’s tallest mountain in books like “Kayaking the Vermilion Sea,” “A Most Hostile Mountain” and “Surviving Denali.”
What Waterman achieves in his new book, “Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” is much more than another synthesis of observations about wild areas and the natural and human activities that become a part of them. Here Waterman brings his fine-tuned literary skills and meshes them with an astonishing knack for research to pull together parts of a puzzle that include geology, natural history, biology, biography, adventure, sociology, and good old-fashioned Washington, D.C., partisan politics.
Unlike his other narratives, this book is not a fairly straightforward accounting of a wilderness or sea-based adventure. Rather, in “Mountains,” Waterman deftly mixes up the pieces of various stories ” the lives of Olaus and Mardy Murie (the couple who fought for decades for formation of the Refuge), the Valdez tanker disaster, Congressional wranglings over Alaskan oil, and his many, many own adventures ” to describe a trove of complex issues behind and facing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He seamlessly switches from one moment describing his own paddling jaunts along the top of the continent to scholarly discussions about wildlife, rocks, animal habits, native tradition, and the Washington misuse of scientific data.
This is not an armchair adventure book, and if you’re looking for a we-went-here, we-went-there narrative, then don’t read it. Sure, Waterman’s latest effort makes you dream of adventuring in the far north of this continent, but at the same time it also outrages the reader, simply by reporting facts we’ve all become so good at registering then forgetting ” like this little tidbit about D.C. deal-making, which appears in one of the many excellent footnotes: “Senator Ted Stevens sponsored legislation that allowed the indigenous people of Alaska to become corporate shareholders [in a corporation designed to simultaneously plunder Alaska’s natural resources and assuage the concerns of the indigenous inhabitants of the area]. According to a later expose in the Los Angeles Times, Stevens made millions by acting as a silent partner in business deals with the Inupiat through the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.”
There are more sweeping generalizations, the kind that are well understood by any political observer (then often filed in the back of the brain), but Waterman adds a huge dose of sincere, on-the-ground scene-setting that will reignite anger in any reader, as he does with this observation about preserved areas in the Canadian arctic compared with their U.S. counterparts: “From where I stood, east of the U.S. border, along an isolated stretch of wilderness park forever closed to industry, it seemed Canada’s chain of command in its Ministry of the Environment is more oriented toward the results of scientific data. Its U.S. counterpart, the Department of the Interior, hosts an everchanging parade of political appointees. Each new Secretary of the Interior, along with the most senior bureaucrats, is reappointed with every new administration. Unlike the Canadians, U.S. officials have more ties to industry than to science, forcing new administrations to reinterpret or manipulate the data about polar bears and caribou and oil.” Yes, simple-enough stuff, but observations that tie into a much greater whole, and which are worth repeating over and over again.
Although I did not expect it in a book with such a sub-title, Waterman does share some of his most poignant and personal Arctic experiences in Mountains, like his encounters with various big carnivores, and, many personal realizations that render him more human than pretty much anyone else up there. These observations come to a stunning head when he takes a group of college kids into the Alaskan wilderness to ponder “Oil Versus Wilderness” (a University of Alaska course, designed mostly by the Waterman). In it the 15 students traversed the refuge by foot and kayak, visited Prudhoe Bay, then met oil industry people and quizzed them about what the heck they were doing. As a good mentor should, Waterman asked no more than the kids see both side of the debate, and, as expected: “Every one [of the students] flew home deeply affected.”
The final parts of the book describe Mardy Murie’s late years (she died in 2003, on her traditional date for celebrating her marriage to Olaus Murie), and her and Olaus’s huge influence on the public’s (and the Congressmen who repeatedly show up at her Jackson Hole home) comprehension off the Arctic, and the North Slope specifically.
This book’s success is not that Waterman has brought a great deal of new data to the anti-Refuge drilling argument; rather, it’s the way Waterman uses stuff we already know to make his point: gutting this extraordinary wilderness for riches for the powerful few and destroying the entire earth (not just the Refuge) through all the bad things fossil fuels do, is the most inane thing an American citizen could ever complacently accept. I’ve never been to the Refuge, or even to Alaska for that matter, but “Mountains” made me feel angry, ashamed, sad, and powerless ” all at once. I’d say, congratulations, Jon ” you succeeded.
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