National Geographic

How Can 6 Million Acres at Denali Still Not Be Enough?

The icon of Alaska’s wilderness symbolizes the tension between preservation and use at U.S. national parks.

PARK RANGERS here call the high season—from June through early September, when Denali National Park and Preserve hosts the majority of its 500,000 annual visitors—the “hundred days of chaos.” Indeed a midsummer morning at the park’s Wilderness Access Center, located at the start of Denali’s fabled 92-mile-long Park Road, can feel a bit like rush hour at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Loudspeakers announce bus boarding times, and visitors from many nations crowd the ticket counter.

Most of Denali’s visitors are cruise ship passengers who see the park and its prolific wildlife largely through bus windows. “But if you’re seeking solitude, it’s not hard to find,” says ranger Sarah Hayes, who helps backpackers and hikers prepare for their adventures. “We’ve got six million acres of mostly trailless lands where wild animals roam undisturbed. And it’s accessible to anyone who hops off the bus.”

Picture of mantis shrimp eyeAs my bus rolls out, noses press against windows, hands clutch cameras, and people speaking half a dozen different tongues excitedly speculate about wildlife sightings. I ask several passengers what’s on their wish list. “A moose!” “A grizzly!” “Caribou!” “A wolf!”

At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.

“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”

At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.

“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”

Rising 20,310 feet above sea level, North America’s tallest peak is a stunning sight, although in warm weather its slopes are often shrouded in clouds. The mountain was a big part of the legend and lore of the Athabaskan-speaking people who gave it the name Denali, meaning Tall One. In 1896 gold prospector William Dickey renamed it Mount McKinley in honor of Ohio politician William McKinley, a staunch champion of the gold standard who one year later would become the nation’s 25th president. For decades Ohio’s congressional delegation successfully blocked attempts to rename the mountain. Then last summer the Obama Administration used its executive power to restore the original name.

Seeing the mountain, spotting a grizzly, or catching a glimpse of a wolf are the top three reasons people give for coming to Denali. As recently as 2010, a visitor stood a better chance of seeing a wolf in the wild than seeing the elusive Tall One, which is visible on just one in three summer days. But since 2010 the number of wolf sightings has plunged. According to a study of wildlife viewing opportunities along the Park Road, observers recorded wolf sightings on only 6 percent of trips in 2014—down from 45 percent in 2010. Park biologists report that the number of wolves inside the park has dropped from more than 100 a decade ago to fewer than 50 last year. I came to Denali, in part, to discover why.

Read the rest of the story at National Geographic

National Geographic

Yukon: Canada’s Wild West

Screenshot 2014-01-06 20.57.21

A modern-day minerals rush threatens North America’s last great wilderness.

 

Shawn Ryan recalls the hungry years, before his first big strike.

The prospector and his family were living in a metal shack on the outskirts of Dawson, the Klondike boomtown that had declined to a ghostly remnant of its glory days. They had less than $300 and no running water or electricity. One night, as wind sneaked through gaps in the cladding, Ryan’s wife, Cathy Wood, worried aloud that their two children might even freeze to death.

Today the couple could buy—and heat—just about any house on Earth. Ryan’s discovery of what would eventually amount to billions of dollars’ worth of buried treasure has helped reinfect the Yukon with gold fever, and fortune seekers have stormed the Canadian territory in numbers not seen since the 1890s. The minerals rush has reanimated Dawson’s weather-tilted bars and bunkhouses, whose facades glow in pastel hues during midsummer’s late-night sunset. The scene could be from more than a century ago, with bearded men bustling along wooden sidewalks and muddy streets, hooting and trading rumors of the latest strikes and price spikes. Inside Diamond Tooth Gerties casino, miners mingle with tourists and cancan girls, thronging four deep around beer taps and poker tables.

During the first Klondike stampede prospectors plied nearby creeks with picks and pans and shovels, and a bartender could sweep up a small fortune in spilled gold dust at the end of a big night. Nowadays mining’s heavy lifting is done by a mechanized army of bulldozers, drilling rigs, and flown-in workers. The claim-staking boom has cooled since the price of gold has stabilized, but an ongoing high demand for minerals and the Yukon’s industry-friendly regulations continue to attract mining companies from as far away as China.

At Shawn Ryan’s expanding compound at the edge of town, helicopters thump overhead, fetching GPS-equipped prospectors to and from remote mountain ridges. Ryan is 50 years old, but he radiates the eagerness and intensity of a much younger man. “This is the biggest geochemical exploration project on the planet right now,” he says, his grin revealing a couple of missing upper teeth, “and maybe in history.”

Along the Porcupine River caribou have been a mainstay of the Vuntut Gwitchin people for at least 10,000 years. Now development is threatening their traditional way of life.

Along the Porcupine River caribou have been a mainstay of the Vuntut Gwitchin people for at least 10,000 years. Now development
is threatening their traditional way of life.

In the modular office he calls his war room, radios and bear-spray canisters surround a trio of computer screens atop a plywood table. A self-taught geologist, Ryan uses the left-hand screen to display the colored maps he generates from his ever growing database of soil samples, looking for anomalies that might betray a hidden body of precious ore. On the center screen a blue grid overlays a map of the Yukon, showing the claims he currently owns; since 1996 he and his crews have staked more than 55,000 claims, enough to cover a landmass larger than Jamaica. Ryan uses the right-side screen to track his gold-related holdings, which notch up in value whenever an economic jolt sends investors fleeing to precious metals.

As the material needs of the world’s seven billion people continue to grow, the rush to exploit the Yukon’s exceptionally rich resources—gold, zinc, copper, and more—has brought prosperity to a once forsaken corner of the continent. But the boom has brought to the fore a growing tension between those who would keep one of North America’s last great wildernesses unbroken and those whose success depends on digging it up.

“They’re blanket-staking the whole territory,” says Trish Hume, a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Though Hume does mapping work that’s mining related, she worries that the Yukon is reaching a tipping point where the environmental and cultural costs of mining outweigh the benefits. “The people coming up and taking out minerals aren’t asking what happens to the animals we hunt, the fish we eat, the topsoil that holds it all together. And when the boom is over, how does our tiny population afford to clean up the toxic mess?”

Read the rest of the story at National Geographic

Tom on Snake Rapids

Author Tom Clynes smacks into a wave train on the Yukon’s Snake River, part of the pristine Peel River watershed. Peter J. Mather photo.

 

Click any photo to see a slide show of images from the Yukon Territory.