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Robert Osborne
Exploring the ethics and esthetics of conservation and wilderness, with a focus on Alaska. Website/blog:
Exploring the ethics and esthetics of conservation and wilderness, with a focus on Alaska. Website/blog:


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In “King of Fish,” author David Montgomery analyzes the decline, in many cases the near extirpation, of once-abundant salmon fisheries in Great Britain and northern Europe, in New England and Canada, and in the Pacific Northwest. First published in 2003, the book is still fresh and relevant today.

The key theme of King of Fish, which the author thoroughly documents, is that the historic decline of salmon stocks has not occurred because people didn’t know any better or because they just didn’t care. Instead, the depredation of the fishery happened despite the best efforts of thoughtful people and bodies politic to protect and preserve them.

When fisheries management and conservation have clashed with financial interests in development and exploitation, the salmon have consistently lost – not every single time, but often enough that the incremental and inexorable accumulation of individual short-term decisions has eroded and whittled away salmon populations and habitats to the point that they collapsed.

Alaska stands today as a singular exception to this pattern, with large and sustainable stocks of five species of wild Pacific salmon.

The author traces the root causes, demonstrating through numerous examples that you can literally bank on the economic value of fish harvest or hydropower or irrigation or any number of other ephemeral interests to outweigh the uncertainties and risk-based arguments on the other side. There is a systemic imbalance in these interests that all but guarantees that the fish will lose whenever decision making is left to local interests.

Montgomery sums it up neatly: “One of the most obvious lessons of past experience is that local control rarely protects salmon over the long run without direction from a higher authority, whether the king, a federal agency, or, as for Native Americans, the Creator through deeply ingrained cultural practices.”

This is an excerpt from the latest Northern Passages blog. To read the full text of the article, please click the link below or visit the website. 
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The legal status of the Pebble Mine -- proposed for development in the headwaters of Alaska's Bristol Bay -- is unresolved. Several key oral arguments are scheduled to be heard in federal courts during the month of May.

Over the last several years, the parallel goals of sustainable fishing, indigenous rights and wilderness values created a broad coalition opposed to large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed, which sustains one of the world’s last and greatest strongholds of wild salmon.

The conservation community was a key part of this coalition until last summer, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed to adopt restrictions that would effectively prohibit mining at the scale contemplated by Northern Dynasty, which owns the mineral rights to the Pebble deposit.

At that point, many conservationists, within Alaska and around the country, quietly declared victory and, in essence, moved on. 

This was premature.

The regulatory proceedings are currently in legal limbo due to litigation brought by Pebble.  As a result, the EPA has not issued a final determination on the mining restrictions and, as of now, a federal court order bars the agency from taking any further action.  

Despite breathless rhetoric on both sides, the mining proposal is not dead and the threat to the headwaters that sustain the Bristol Bay salmon fishery has not been removed. 

This week’s Northern Passages blog post reviews the pending litigation and other current issues relating to the proposed Pebble Mine.  It is one of the longest blogs I have written, but the legal battle to preserve the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery is far from over, and there is a lot to cover. 

To read the litigation update, please click the link below or visit the Northern Passages website. 
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The Alaska House of Representatives approved a bill earlier this month that orders the United States government to hand over most federal land in Alaska to the state by the end of next year. This would include national monuments, preserves and refuges, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The underlying purpose of the Alaska bill and similar resolutions at the federal level is to nullify federal law and weaken conservation protections for our national heritage lands.

The tundra land grab has been tried before. A similar attempt was made in 1982, prompting the Attorney General of Alaska to issue a formal legal opinion concluding that "no good faith argument could be made to support" the claim that Alaska owns federal lands within its borders.

These bills, both the 1982 vintage and this year's version, are clearly unconstitutional -- and a colossal waste of legislative time and taxpayer resources, especially if their invalidity needs to be confirmed through judicial process.

It is important to focus on the public policy merits of issues involving land use, resource extraction and development, conservation and wilderness values -- all of which have pros and cons that can be reasonably debated -- and not get distracted by political sound bites about sovereignty, nullification and states’ rights that are poorly grounded in history and law.

This is an excerpt from the latest Northern Passages blog post. To read the article in full, please click the link below or visit the website.
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Many Alaska politicians reacted with overwrought rhetoric when the Obama administration proposed that Congress designate key areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. Among the more restrained examples: Senator Lisa Murkowski called the proposal "a stunning attack on our sovereignty."

In fact, however, the Arctic Refuge is owned by and for the benefit of all of the citizens of the United States. Alaska state sovereignty is simply not relevant.

When Alaska entered the federal union, it selected more than 100 million acres of land and was granted additional acreage to support education and medical trusts. The lands in what is now the Arctic Refuge were not included in these grants to the State, and Alaska disclaimed any sovereign authority over them.

Decisions about where to develop, and where to protect, can be reasonably debated. But, please: keep the red herring of state sovereignty out of it.

This is an excerpt from the latest Northern Passages blog post. To read the post in its entirety, please click the link below.
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All those in favor of an open pit mine in the Grand Canyon, please raise your hands!  Really?  No one?  I didn't think so.

We have rarely set aside areas of potential resource development for esthetic, cultural, human rights or similar reasons.  In the limited, but iconic, instances where we have done so, such as Yellowstone National Park (1872) and Grand Canyon National Park (1919), very few of our contemporary citizens look back on the action now with deep regret.  In contrast, at least some might question the wisdom of our forebears who plowed, drilled, strip-mined, clearcut and otherwise "developed" just about everything else in the Lower 48.

Assuming that the Arctic Refuge holds significant oil and gas resources, there is complete certainty that they will be finite just like all the other fossil fuels in the world.  The same goes for the short-term financial benefit to Alaskans, to the United States, and even to the energy companies and the stockholders who buy and sell them every day on global markets. 

Moreover, the current proposals to designate more of the Refuge as wilderness would do nothing to reduce Alaska's oil and gas production from what is available today.  Under protection already provided by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, there is no oil and gas drilling going on in the Refuge now, including its coastal plain, nor can there ever be without express Congressional approval.

The political question is whether to make that protection permanent, to leave it in a continued state of limbo, or to revoke it.  The President has proposed to Congress that it make the current protection permanent, which would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a legacy for us all on this majestic scale.

I am fairly certain what the visionaries who protected Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon would have to say about that, and I am equally sure that future generations will thank us if we follow their example.

This is an excerpt from today’s Northern Passages blog post.  To read the article in full, please click the link below.
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At least with currently imaginable technologies, we will need the high energy density of petroleum to power massively consumptive products like jet engines. Other energy sources just don’t pack enough punch to put a plane in the air and keep it there.

This puts a near-term premium on using other energy forms, such as electricity generated by coal or nuclear fuels, or even less dense renewable sources like solar and wind generation, to power uses that don’t have such massive requirements. Establishing priorities along these lines strikes me as a blindingly obvious hedge against having our collective tank run dry.

The most important public policy element of the hedge would undoubtedly be a carbon tax that would make energy-dense petroleum fuels more expensive and thereby use market forces to steer energy consumption toward other sources. The tax would also provide funds to offset inequitable social impacts of energy shifts and climate change, and encourage investment in energy alternatives.

Another significant element of this hedging strategy would be to leave at least some fossil fuels in the ground for now. When oil and gas have been removed from geological storage, you can't put them back. But if we leave them in the ground now, future generations can make their own decisions, based on their technologies and existential circumstances, about whether to extract the fuels, if ever. A hedge strategy includes the creation of these future options.

This is an excerpt from the latest Northern Passages blog post. To read the article in full, please click the link or visit the website.
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"If you could be guaranteed that our current levels of energy consumption and resource development could happily coexist with environmental, climate and wilderness values for another 1,000 years, but after that things would completely fall apart, would you really care?  How about 500 years?  250?  Where would you draw the line?" 

On two hiking and rafting trips in Alaska's arctic last summer, I posed these questions to my traveling companions as dinner-time conversation starters.  I was not disappointed in the vitality of the discussions that ensued.  

What do readers think?

I can comfortably get to about 100 years or so, maybe 150, as what might be considered a moral time horizon for answering these questions.  But beyond that, I’m not so sure.  Am I too callous, perhaps too selfish, to be thinking in such limited terms?

Let me suggest that the problem with the question as posed, and my answer to it, is not its limited timeframe but rather its anthropocentrism.  Aldo Leopold's philosophy of the land ethic, articulated in “A Sand County Almanac,” may provide an escape from this rather bleak ethical box.

The fundamental characteristic of the land ethic is humility.  It is an ecocentric moral stance that places humanity in the context of a broader natural community.  It is a Copernican shift of perspective, expanding the circle of beings that are entitled to moral consideration from humans alone to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively:  the land.”

This is an excerpt from the latest NorthernPassages blog post.  To read the full article, please visit the website or click this link:
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William O. Douglas, a great 20th century conservationist who also happened to be a Supreme Court Justice, once remarked: “The arctic has a strange stillness that no other wilderness knows. It has loneliness too – a feeling of isolation and remoteness born of vast spaces. This is a loneliness that is joyous and exhilarating.” It is in pursuit of just that type of loneliness that I have traveled in Alaska's wilderness, including its arctic region.

And yet, I did not make these trips alone. Nor did Justice Douglas. It was a communal form of loneliness that we sought: far from the madding crowd, but richer and more textured than simple isolation and remoteness.

I enjoy the feeling of "coming home to a place [I've] never been before," as John Denver sings, when immersed in wilderness. But the most meaningful value for me derives not just from the natural landscapes and the animals, plants, rivers, mountains and tundra that inhabit them. It is rather the shared experience of the natural world that comes from traveling in wild places with other people.

Aristotle taught that humans are by nature social animals. I admire and respect solo hikers and others who desire to be alone in wilderness. For me, however, it is through social interaction with wilderness that we make it a human encounter, becoming not simply passive observers of the wild, but active participants in it. We become part of the land, connecting with a deep and integral part of our own nature.

We can only hope that our descendants will have similar opportunities to come together in the shared experience of wilderness and to give full expression to our natural place in it. If we allow that to slip from our grasp, an important part of our human heritage will be lost as well.

This is an excerpt from the latest Northern Passages blog. Please click the link or visit the website to read the full article.
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From the latest Northern Passages blog post:

“Has anyone eaten bear?” asked Phil. “I’ve heard that it tastes like pork.” David didn’t miss a beat. “Actually,” he said, “it’s more like bat.” Evidently, the bush meats commonly available in the African village where David had worked in the Peace Corps regularly included bat, which was not considered an unusual dining option. 

Trips like our voyage on Arcturus can open one’s eyes to new worlds and new ways of thinking. I did not immediately regard the coastal marine environment of southeast Alaska as one that would have the same “wilderness” values that I find, let’s say, on the open tundra of the arctic. That all changed, however, after a few hikes in the Tongass and numerous encounters with marine mammals as we sailed or kayaked. 

I especially remember one fine morning on which a dozen or so gray whales surrounded the boat and escorted us like an honor guard. We were under sail at the time, moving quietly through the water, but something must have piqued the curiosity of the large gray mammals, which accompanied us for several miles. 

Every so often, one of the animals would roll slightly, tilting its head so one eye would emerge from the water, presumably in order to get a better view of the boat and its crew. It is not every day that you get to stare directly into the big round eye of a whale, exchanging what I firmly believe was a moment of mutual comprehension and awareness.

This is an excerpt from the latest Northern Passages blog. Please click the link or visit the website to read the full post.
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This is an excerpt from the latest Northern Passages blog.  To read the full story, please click the link or visit the website.

Bahrr-ohhh-nne!  Bahrr-ohhh-nne!  The deep tones resonated from the open hatch above our heads, echoing into the sleeping compartments behind.  Then came banging and crashing sounds, accompanied by whoops and exclamations, indicating that the boat was being boarded.

Nels and Miles came scampering down the aft ladder into the main cabin, doubled over with laughter and displaying the didgeridoos that had been the source of the atonal chorus.  And so began another day aboard Arcturus.

On the morning of the didgeridoo serenade, Nels and Miles had quietly slipped away in kayaks as Arcturus rested at anchor in a secluded cove off Chichagof Island.  They had found a bountiful bed of bull kelp nearby and cut the long cylindrical tubes into an ersatz Alaskan version of the musical instrument that originated in Australia. 

Bahrr-ohhh-nne!  Bahrr-ohhh-nne!  The concert would have continued for quite some time but both of our companions were dangerously close to passing out from hyperventilation as they tried to master the continuous breathing technique needed to keep the droning action of the didgerees going.
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