Arctic National Wildlife Refuge…‘Walk to Washington’ comes our way

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge…‘Walk to Washington’ comes our way


Rockford residents looked to the Far North yesterday when Ken Madson, an award-winning author and photographer, passed through the city on the Walk to Washington, D.C.

An environmentalist for many years, he is participating in the Walk to draw attention to the controversy over oil development within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and the plight of the Gwich’in people and the Porcupine caribou herd.

Background story on the area

Movement is life for the wildlife on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Porcupine River Caribou, who migrate farther than any other land animal on earth, converge on the coastal plain each year to give birth to the next generation of calves. Female polar bears travel from the frozen ocean ice to dig maternity dens in the Refuge foothills. Millions of migratory birds fly to the special place to nest, coming through every state in the United States and from as far away as Antarctica.

This fall, members of the Gwich’in Nation and the Caribou Commons Project are undertaking their own “migration”—three self-propelled journeys spanning more than 8,000 miles across the United States to Washington, D.C. The Walk to Washington, D.C. for the Arctic Refuge also features a series of public events, concerts, slide shows and rallies, raising awareness and galvanizing support for this important environmental and human rights issue.

The controversy over oil development within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the highest profile conservation issue in the world. The last U.S. election and recent world events have put the Arctic Refuge into more peril than ever before. Following the recent Senate energy vote which narrowly defeated drilling in the Refuge as part of the current energy policy, the next important hurdle will be the results of U.S. mid-term elections in November 2002.

For the Gwich’in in northern Alaska and Canada, this is more than a conservation issue. It is a human rights issue. The Gwich’in have lived with the Porcupine caribou herd for their subsistence needs since the time of the last ice age. There is direct archaeological evidence that the Gwich’in have depended upon the migratory rhythms of the caribou for at least 20,000 years. The calving grounds located on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are a sacred place for the Gwich’in. They are firmly opposed to oil exploration and development in the Arctic Refuge and have fought for permanent protection of the calving grounds for nearly two decades.

Three Walks converge

The longest route of the Walk to Washington, D.C. left the Northwest Coast of the U.S. in August, joining two additional routes toward the East Coast, with all three walks converging in Washington, D.C. in mid-November. Trip participants will bring a message from the Gwich’in Nation and the American people they meet along the way, that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must be permanently protected. As the Walk approaches cities along the routes, people will be encouraged to walk or bike into their hometowns and join in special arrival events. People can demonstrate with their own two feet that they support cleaner, more efficient energy solutions that will allow us to control pollution, cut back on greenhouse gases, and protect special places like the calving grounds in the Arctic Refuge.

Species affected in the Refuge

The Porcupine caribou are a herd of 130,000 barren ground caribou. The herd derives its unusual name from its twice-annual crossing of the Porcupine River during its fall and spring migrations. The herd’s annual migration from its winter range in the boreal forest of Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest migration of any land animal on earth. Here, pregnant females give birth to 40,000 calves each June. For many reasons, wildlife biologists call this place a “critical habitat” for the herd. For the Gwich’in, it is simply a sacred place.

Other species found on the Refuge include polar bears, musk oxen, and more than 135 bird species. Denning polar bears are extremely sensitive to industrial activity. Females may abandon their dens if disturbed, which can be fatal for cubs unable to fend for themselves. Musk oxen were completely wiped out in Alaska in the 19th century by hunters, but have been successfully reintroduced and now number approximately 325 animals living year round on the Refuge. Among the many species of birds are snow geese, tundra swans, red-throated loons, snowy owls, eider ducks, scoters, long-tailed ducks, pintails, and a variety of shorebirds. Some of these birds are extremely sensitive to human disturbance and would certainly be harmed by oil drilling.

Some prominent national figures have expressed concern for the future of the Refuge.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stated, “The vastness, the openness, is what is most impressive about the Arctic Refuge. The closest thing I have seen to this is Africa’s Serengeti Plain.”

Norma Kassi, co-chair of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, recipient of the 2002 Goldman Prize, commented, “Drilling in the Arctic Refuge would be like drilling in a hospital nursery. We will do everything in our power to protect the calving grounds, because it means our life.”

Sarah James, also on the Gwich’in Steering Committee, observed, “The caribou is not just what we eat, it’s who we are. It is our dances, stories, songs and the whole way we see the world. Caribou are our life.”

Madson was accompanied on the Walk by his wife, Wendy, and son, Malcomb, driving the support vehicle (a diesel van which runs on biodiesel fuel), as well as Margret Njootli, the Gwich’in representative and speaker coming from Old Crow, Yukon, Canada. She has worked in the Ivavik National Park and Canadian Park Service for years.

Wendy Boothroyd, communications coordinator for the Walk to Washington, stated, “We think this area is very important to protect. It’s an election issue. People can ask the people who are running for the House of Representatives what their position is on the Arctic Refuge. Right now it is hanging in the balance. Congress is very close on the issue. We are hoping that many politicians get elected who are favorable to the wilderness.”

Ken Madson has written several books. His latest is Under the Arctic Sun, published this August by Westcliffe Publishers, Colo. This book is about the Arctic refuge and is available at Borders Books. Other works by Madson include Wild River, Wild Lands and guidebooks on paddling and canoeing, such as Paddling on the Yukon.

Thanks to “Mac” MacVenn for providing information for this article.

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