Congress Must Protect the Wild Silence of the Arctic Refuge | Commentary

Posted April 15, 2015 at 12:14pm

Recently, President Barack Obama and his administration signed the Record of Decision for the updated management plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and transmitted a wilderness recommendation to Congress — finalizing the decision to recommend 12.28 million acres of wilderness for the Arctic Refuge and its biologically sensitive coastal plain. Now it’s Congress’ turn.

I traveled to the Brooks Range in the Refuge in spring 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Refuge, to experience it firsthand — on skis.

Through years of adventuring around the world with my skis, climbing and skiing the highest mountain on each continent including Everest, I couldn’t shake the allure of the Brooks Range.

On that first expedition to the Refuge, along with two subsequent trips, I’ve seen polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, Dall sheep, caribou, arctic fox, snowy owls and many more remarkable animal species; yet beyond those once-in-a-lifetime sightings what I fell in love with was the deepest, wildest silence of any place that I’d ever experienced. Last year, I went back to the mountains of the Arctic Refuge for a National Geographic expedition focused on science, mapping and mountaineering.

The refuge has grown on me so much that I can’t imagine a year of my life without visiting its pristine wilderness, and this summer I’m taking our two young daughters there so they can experience the wildness of this place that has grabbed such hold of my heart. A place so wild that until my recent National Geographic project, we didn’t even know what the highest mountain was. When I stood in that deep Arctic silence on top of Mount Isto and looked 60 miles north to the Beaufort Sea, I had the sensation that if there were to be any development on the coastal plain, I would have heard it.

After completing our goal of skiing the highest mountain in the Brooks Range, we loaded our sleds and skied north toward the Beaufort Sea. At some unmarked place, as nothing is marked in this wilderness void of roads and trails, we crossed into the coastal plain, what’s often referred to as the 1002 Area. The sensitive Coastal Plain has not yet been opened to development and I found it to be as wild and silent as the rest of the refuge and just as untouched — so far. I paraphrase the late Mardy Murie, who fought so hard for the protection of the refuge, when I say that this place is valuable for its wild, remote, vast silence — not for the oil that lies within it.

Obama’s recommendation for wilderness is the first wilderness protection any president has recommended to Congress in a Refuge since 1974. Besides providing home to polar bears, caribou and birds that migrate from six continents, the Arctic Refuge is home to and provides sustenance for the Gwich’in people. By prescribing protection, Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell have done the right thing, and I thank them.

Now all we need is for Congress to protect it for once and for all through wilderness legislation — for all generations to come.

I can draw a parallel from the Arctic Refuge to where I live on the edge of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a fabulous place to call home and a national treasure for sure, yet it’s important to realize that Yellowstone has been manipulated in many ways and we now have the chance to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from a similar fate.

As a professional athlete, I love that I can adventure in the refuge, a remote road-less and trail-less wilderness that requires me to use my mountain travel skills. But it’s really as a mother and a citizen of the United States that I’m the most grateful our leadership is on the path to forever protecting the Arctic Refuge.

Kit DesLauriers is the first person in the world to have skied off the top of the Seven Summits — the highest points on each of the seven continents. She is an Arctic Refuge advocate and a 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.