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Restraint and Hope: Lessons From Lake Baikal and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Something strange happened in the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s. During a period when both countries were focused intently on space, nuclear weapons, and post–war development, two environmental issues made national headlines. Even stranger, the places that attracted attention were thousands of miles from either of the political centers in Moscow or Washington, D.C., in some of the most isolated parts of each country.

Something strange happened in the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s. During a period when both countries were focused intently on space, nuclear weapons, and post–war development, two environmental issues made national headlines. Even stranger, the places that attracted attention were thousands of miles from either of the political centers in Moscow or Washington, D.C., in some of the most isolated parts of each country. Against these odds, however, Lake Baikal and what later became known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge transcended politics and geography to emerge as powerful environmental symbols.

In contrast to the modern battles, the initial campaign to protect the northeast corner of Alaska was proactive and not reactive. Few had visited the area and no one had plans to drill the coastal plain; oil hadn’t even been found in Prudhoe Bay. To conservationists, such as Starker Leopold, Olaus and Mardie Murie, Howard Zahniser, and David Brower, the coastal tundra and adjacent mountains possessed unparalleled cultural, ecological, spiritual, and recreational values. Starting in the 1950s, they began to write articles in national magazines and newspapers, to speak to national leaders, and to foster letter writing campaigns. What its defenders called the Last Great Wilderness was an Edenic place where the presence of industrial humanity had not been felt and where a visitor could experience an unplundered planet.

The American activists achieved their initial goal on December 6, 1960, when President Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton designated 8.9 million acres as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. It expressly preserved “wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” (The range became a refuge in 1980.) More than merely protecting a small corner of Alaska, the establishment of the Arctic Range galvanized the environmental movement and laid the groundwork for passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Located in the middle of Siberia, more than 2,500 miles from Moscow, Lake Baikal’s emergence as a national symbol for the environment began in response to an audacious plan to blast out the mouth of the lake’s only outlet with a 30–kiloton bomb (50 percent larger than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima). The previous year’s success of his country’s space probe, Sputnik, had inspired engineer N. A. Grigorovich to propose in 1958 to widen and deepen the Angara River to increase water flow and generate billions of kilowatts of electricity at a downriver hydroelectric dam. Much to the surprise of Grigorovich and his fellow promoters within the Communist Party, a small group of scientists objected. In their successful protest they countered the developers with science and with morality, summed up by biologist Mikhail Kozhov: “We don’t have the right to destroy the harmony and beauty of this unique gift of nature.”

Around the same time, word leaked out of plans to build two pulp plants on Baikal’s shoreline. The plants “required” Baikal’s pure water to make a “super, super cellulose cord” necessary for military aircraft tires. The plants would require deforestation of thousands of acres around the lake to provide raw material for processing, as well as generate dangerous levels of air and water pollution. Opposition was vigorous and sustained with leading authors and scientists writing articles and letters for national media such as Pravda and the Communist Youth League’s daily publication. Protests made it all the way to the Communist Party Congress, presided over by Leonid Brezhnev, where Nobel Prize–winning writer Mikhail Sholokov decried the threat to “glorious, sacred Baikal.”

I wish I could write that the laureate and limnologists succeeded, but the plant was built, though with some safeguards that might not have occurred without the protests. However, as historian Paul Josephson says, because of the public fight over Baikal, “an entire segment of Soviet society began to act not only for Baikal but for other environmental issues.”

Lake Baikal and the Arctic Refuge stand as the apotheoses of their respective country’s environmental movements. Through a combination of beauty, size, and diversity, each place has inspired generations of people to act on behalf of the land. The refuge and Baikal have come to symbolize not only primal, sacred wilderness but also the struggle over values and who controls natural resources. Do we as a species have the political will to exercise self–control and to show a bit of humility?

Getting to Know the Refuge and Lake Baikal

I have been lucky enough to visit both the refuge and Baikal. In August 2005, I was a journalist following a group of students from the University of Washington who were studying the refuge’s cultural and natural history and politics. For three weeks we attended classes in Seattle before flying to Alaska for an eight–day–long raft trip. Our group ran the Aichilik River, which flows north out of the Brooks Range and forms the eastern edge of the 1002 area, the region of the coastal plain that can be opened for drilling in the refuge. At Lake Baikal, my wife and I volunteered with The Great Baikal Trail, a Russian non–profit organization that is developing, maintaining, and promoting a 1,500–mile–long trail around the lake. Their goal is to showcase ecotourism and sustainable development at the place Siberians call the Sacred Sea. We spent two weeks in September 2008 helping to build this trail.

For many, the most notable attribute of the Arctic Refuge and Lake Baikal is their size. Twenty miles into our river trip and standing in the middle of the coastal plain, sky and grass, separated only by the strikingly straight plane of the horizon, defined my visual world. Above the line the sky extended up in a featureless field of ashy white. Below the horizon grew thousands upon thousands of acres of tawny grass tussocks.I had never been in such a flat, ocean–like landscape where I felt so tall and yet so inconsequential.

I found it harder to appreciate Baikal’s size. Unlike my experience at the refuge, I always had a mountainous horizon at Baikal that narrowed my view and prevented me from seeing the entire lake at once. When I sat by the lake’s edge at our trail camp, I could look across a bay and see the 6,100–foot–high Holy Nose Peninsula. Its ghostly profile seemed distant but when I studied a map of Baikal, I discovered that the bay was a barely noticeable feature of the shoreline. Most challenging to fully comprehend, however, was the lake’s great depth, which dropped off to more than a mile deep. When I looked in, it was like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, if water filled the canyon: I knew that at Baikal a great abyss opened before me but I had no way to experience it.

Another way to consider size is to revert to specifics. They may seem simply to be factual details, but they are also vitally important to understanding the controversies behind each place. At 19.6 million acres, the refuge is the size of South Carolina. If it were its own park, the coastal plain alone—the area most in contention politically—would be the third biggest national park in the lower 48 states. Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest, most voluminous lake, holding more water than the Great Lakes combined, about 20 percent of all the non–frozen fresh water on Earth. The lake is so big that if its northern tip was located in Seattle and the lake ran due north–south, its southern tip would touch the Oregon–California border, a distance of 400 miles.

Life at the Refuge

Those who propose drilling like to observe that the refuge can withstand an impact because said development would only mar a tiny percentage of the site. After flying over the coastal plain, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann said, “Energy exploration would be limited to a small 2,000–acre lot within ANWR. That is comparable to a postage stamp sitting on a football field.” She added that it was “the most perfect place on the planet to drill.”

On my own flight over several hundred miles of mountains from Fairbanks to the Aichilik, I came to understand Bachmann’s comments. I had never seen such an immense area with no roads, trails, buildings, or other signs of human impact. Any drilling would be hidden in this convoluted topography of valleys and ridges. If I had never set foot on the ground, I might have sympathized with Bachmann. A day later, however, I stood atop the final foothills of North America and looked across the treeless, horizontal, and seemingly featureless coastal plain to the Beaufort Sea. I realized that oil and gas development in the wide–open expanse meant that any drill rigs and associated infrastructure would rise like skyscrapers and be visible for miles. The vastness was not just a visual one but a spiritual one, where knowing that humans have had and still have a microscopic presence was central to the experience and magic of this landscape.

Spending eight days in the refuge further reinforced my belief that drilling proponents use size to deflect the greater issue of habitat loss. I did feel the immensity of the coastal plain, but I also discovered its intimacy and diversity. In the wet sand near the Aichilik, I found wolf tracks superimposed on caribou tracks. The success of hunters such as snowy owls, long–tailed jaegers, and Arctic foxes could be found in the bone piles and fecal pellets covering the low mounds that dotted the tundra. And amid the grass tussocks were dashes of self–cleaning” and “self–purifying.” Or as a Russian tour guide proudly said on one of our train rides, “If you throw a dead cat into the lake, it will disappear within 24 hours.” She was referring to the dietary habits of the lake’s nearly mythic crustacean, a pinhead–size shrimp known by its scientific name Epischura baicalensis. Epischura occur nowhere else on Earth and are responsible for Baikal’s astounding clarity; people are known to experience vertigo looking into the water, where you can see down an amazing 130 feet. I did not have the chance to get out on the lake but still thrilled to watch as wind, sun, and clouds painted it pale emerald green, calm and blue, or shimmering with white caps.

Epischura keep Baikal clean by filter feeding on algae, bacteria, and organic material. They live throughout the entire lake and occur in densities of millions per square meter. As they vacuum up their food, Epischura also ingest any pollutants either in or on their meals, so, the reasoning of developers goes, no matter what toxins enter the lake, the Epischura will consume them and all will be well.

Reports do show that Baikal’s water is extremely clean, but the Epischura don’t make pollutants magically vanish from the ecosystem. Instead, the wee shrimp concentrate toxins in their bodies, and as other critters eat the Epischura the pollutants move up the food chain, getting more and more abundant and more and more dangerous. Such bioaccumulations can be seen in the nerpa, the only seal found in a freshwater lake. Studies in the 1990s found anomalously high levels of PCBs and DDTs in nerpas, fish eaters at the top of Baikal’s food chain. It is the old story most famously explored by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring.

The Epischura are one of at least 2,500 animal species that inhabit the lake, most of which, like Epischura, are endemic. Such diversity results from Baikal’s great age, which gave animals time to evolve and speciate. In contrast to 99 percent of Earth’s other lakes, which formed in the last ice age, Baikal opened more than 25 million years ago as two plates of the Earth’s crust began to pull apart and form a basin. This same process occured in east Africa, home to other ancient lakes such as Tanganyika and Victoria. No one knows how species will ultimately respond to the introduction of pollutants, but within five years of the pulp plant’s opening, 95 local species had disappeared at Baikal.

In addition, and obviously, Epischura have no affect on terrestrial species. On the same train ride where we learned about the dangers of leaving your dead cat in Lake Baikal, we had beautiful views of the south end of the lake, where a fall foliage mosaic of saffron, sienna, and ochre fingered into green birch, pine, and larch–covered hills. Above the forests, the season’s first snow capped rocky peaks and ridges. We were also 35 miles across Baikal from the town of Baikalsk, the home of the pulp plant people protested against in the 1950s. The sky was brilliant blue except where plumes of smoke rose from the plant and spread a haze south for miles. I can only wonder about the land below and the effects of airborne toxins pumped out from the towers of the pulp plant.

Values and Restraint

Although I don’t agree with arguments that Lake Baikal and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can withstand development, visiting each place has led me to realize that the debate is ultimately about values and restraint. From their large–scale beauty to their exquisite intimacy, Baikal and the refuge are so unique and special that they don’t seem like they should exist. Russian writer Valentin Rasputin eloquently expressed this sentiment when he wrote, “Long ago it became the symbol of our relationship to nature, and now too much depends on whether or not Baikal will remain pure and intact. This would have been not just one more boundary that the human race conquered and crossed but the final boundary: beyond Baikal there would be nothing that could stop people from going too far in their efforts to transform nature.”

To men such as Grigorovich, however, development did not harm nature but improved it. Referring to his bomb detonation proposal, he said, “We are not enemies of Baikal. We want Baikal to be utilized not only so people will fall in love with it but so that it gives the country the maximum it can give.” We hear a similar argument about the refuge from people who also claim to love the land and yet want to open it up to drilling. Those who frame such arguments may not consider drilling, polluting, road building, or alteration of habitat as mistreatment, but I would compare them to a spouse or child abuser, who says that they love the person they just put in the hospital.

The second part of Grigororich’s comment gets to the heart of the matter in both the refuge and Baikal. Are we not maximizing the value of a place if we fail to exploit its resources? All of that clean water, abundant oil, and extensive forest must serve a purpose for people. It isn’t right or natural to not utilize what the land can give, say the proponents of development. Some who wanted to build at Baikal during Soviet times even labeled their opponents as abettors of imperialism and enemies of the state.

Defenders of these landscapes countered that resource extraction was not the best and highest use of the land. Lake Baikal and the Arctic Refuge were places where humans could show restraint and where they could honor nature and not consume her. As Aldo Leopold wrote in the foreword to A Sand County Almanac, “the question [is] whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free.”

Defense is Still Necessary

Lake Baikal and the refuge were and still are tests. For more than half a century they have symbolized the struggle as to whether we have the political will to not exploit the land. The Soviet Union may have failed the test with pulp plants on Baikal, but in 2006 huge protests around Russia led President Putin to demand that a new pipeline be moved at least 25 miles from Baikal’s shore. The original plan located the oil pipeline within a half–mile of the lake. And in early November 2008 came reports that the Baikal pulp plant would close permanently by February 2009. It did close, but then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin allowed the plant to reopen in early 2010. He stated, after taking a submarine to the bottom of Baikal, that “there is practically no pollution,” and even submitted plans for relaxing environmental laws to allow the plant to reopen. At present, the pulp plant has come online, though in November, Russian Minister of Natural Resources Yuri Trutnev declared that the plant should be closed down.

Year after year the refuge faces an onslaught of proposals for development. The most recent affront arose during the 2008 presidential election with Sarah Palin and her followers’ “Drill, Baby, Drill” refrain to open up areas such as the Arctic coastal plain to oil exploration. This rhetoric will surely escalate with the climate–change–denying, Tea Party–influenced, GOP takeover of the House of Representatives. In late 2010, with the fiftieth anniversary of the refuge on December 6, however, the refuge gained a new advocate when President Obama signed a proclamation stating that, “we must remain committed to making responsible choices and ensuring the continued conservation of these lands.” And as he has done during every session of Congress since 2001, on January 5, 2011, Massachusetts representative Edward Markey introduced legislation to designate the refuge as a wilderness area.

Perhaps the most surprising political aspect of Lake Baikal and the Arctic Refuge is that the vast majority of people who wrote to protect them in the 1950s, and who continue to defend them at present, knew and know that they would probably never see either place in person. These landscapes showed that no matter what their circumstances, people have a deep attachment to the land. Iconic and transcendent, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Baikal have given people the gift of hope, that we can rise above our perceived needs and that we have the courage and imagination to restrain ourselves from harming the world’s sacred places.

[Note to readers: I’d like to thank Subhankar Banerjee and Christine Clifton–Thornton for their helpful comments and edits for this piece.]

David B. Williams is a freelance writer and naturalist based in Seattle. In his work, he has sought to weave together stories of people and nature in the urban landscape. His books include Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology and The Seattle Street–Smart Naturalist: Field Notes From the City. He has worked as park ranger, bike guide, and program coordinator and at present works part–time at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. He has written for Grist, High Country News, the Nature Conservancy, and regularly contributes to Earth magazine. You can visit his blog, which focuses on people and rocks, by clicking here.

Copyright 2011 David B. Williams

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