An interview with Julie Munger regarding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

photo of Julie Munger

Subject: Julie Munger
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
Transcriber: Patrick Hammerlund

The segments included in this interview* excerpt were recorded during June, 2000 on the Kongakut River in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Julie Munger is a well known river guide and has led expeditions worldwide including numerous river and sea kayak trips in Alaska. For more information about Julie or about guided adventure trips on the Kongakut River, please contact Juneau-based Alaska Discovery.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

Where are we and why do you think it should it be protected?
Well the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last uninterrupted tracts of wilderness really in the world that's left. And the caribou, the wolves, the bear, the wolverines; all the mammals and the birds that live up here have free reign uninterrupted. You know, in the lower 48 we're continually trying to find animal corridors and piece together back tracts of land so that mammals can go on their migrations and find food. And up here, that's not a problem, there's lots of wilderness for them to move across freely. And one of the last places in the world where that's a possibility.

Right now there's a huge pressure from oil companies to turn the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into another drilling platform. The problem with that is it would interrupt these migrations that have been going on for centuries and centuries. And bringing in oil drilling rigs in here would completely destroy the process that's allowed to go on here.

Describe what makes the Kongakut River unique.
What makes the Kongakut unique is that it flows on the north side of the Brooks Range, right through the middle of the porcupine herd migration. The other thing that makes the Kongakut unique is that we're almost as isolated as you can get in the Arctic. We're way out in the middle of nowhere and because of that the wildlife has free run of the mountains without being impeded by humans. Unfortunately I think only a couple hundred people get to see this part of the Brooks Range every year, if that. I think that's a conservative estimate, it could be less that a hundred. It's unfortunate because this is one of those areas that is threatened by oil development. I think that if people could see this place there wouldn't be any question of whether it needs to be protected or not. And there's so few places on our planet left where animals can be wild and can live their lives unimpeded by humans and this is one of them.

What makes this land so unique in terms of wildlife and wildness?
The thing that makes it so unique in terms of its wildness is that there's enough land here that's undeveloped and unpopulated that animals that live here, mammals especially and birds, that have lived here for thousands of years are still able to live the lifestyle that they have been able to lead for that long. And there's just very few places on the planet left. Somebody said the other day that good indicator of wilderness is where there's wolverines. You know, we've already seen one wolverine on this trip and other people have seen other wolverines out here. … A bear needs about a hundred square miles of territory in this environment to support itself. And the caribou migration, they're migrating hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands of miles every year, and it's one of the few places where they can maintain their traditional route.

What would you say to someone who cared more about gas for her car than for the caribou?
Both.I would say that there's a lot of alternative fuels and there's a lot of other ways to solve the gas price problem besides developing this area for oil. There's conservation, new cars are being developed all the time that use alternative fuels, and just changing our lifestyles in the smallest of ways would conserve an incredible amount of oil to begin with. Again, eventually the West has had to figure that out with water, that conservation of water is a much better alternative then, because there aren't any more water sources to develop. And I think that it's just a matter of time before our whole mentality needs to change as far as oil production to realizing that it is a limited supply and there are alternatives out there and it's time to start using those alternatives.

What would happen to the wildlife and the landscape if the oil companies get to develop ANWR?
You know the thing about the 80,000 caribou… the thing about the animals here is that they've adapted… the number of animals here have adapted to the amount of land that's available to them. So by coming in here with oil development it's going to change the migration routes of the caribou. For some reason human being have a problem with wolves and right now the wolves are free running up here. … It would completely impede all of the patterns of migration here.

The other thing I don't think a lot of people realize, you look at some of this landscape and to some people because it doesn't have trees it looks barren. But the sophistication of life and the way that everything has had to evolve to survive in this climate is incredibly sensitive. It's almost like a desert environment in being sensitive to interruption. So if you start interrupting the patterns of the Earth, the tundra it's going to affect everything that lives off of the tundra and has adapted to live there. … The landscape is so complicated. It's a thawing landscape. What we're seeing right now is a frozen. The tundra's only about two or three feet thick before the permafrost starts. So all of the trees that have adapted, the dwarf birches and the dwarf willows, have adapted root systems that spread out. Quite a few of the plants store all of their nutrients in the fall so that they can just explode with life in the spring. … There's all sorts of mosses and lichens and little and little flowers everywhere.

How would you describe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to a friend who had never seen it before?
It's a place you have to fly into and land and just sit down and look around and start to absorb. … There's something about the tenderness of this landscape that I think affects you first on a soul and spirit level and then it's easier to start noticing the intricacies. It's a place that you kind of have to let go of the big vista scene and really look closely to see the special parts of it.

...You know, you fly three hours north of Fairbanks over basically nothing but completely unimpeded wilderness the whole flight up, which gives you a real sense of how isolated we are here. The magic of having 24 hours of daylight and literally within five minutes going from shorts and a t-shirt to big, big clothes and warm jackets and a thunderstorm. And also this is a place that teaches you to stop and wait and listen and look. I think our sightings of wildlife on this trip are a good indication of that. You just kinda have to wait for things to come to you. It's a great place for learning about life on the macroscopic scale as well as the microscopic. And as far as the wind and the vistas, I think you get the sense of wildness as soon as you fly into this country. And that it's just continually reinforced that way that the chill of the air is coming off the ice as we float by it on the river. Looking up and having a golden eagle soaring ten feet below you as you're sitting on a ridge. It's an all encompassing place.

Another thing that I think is one of the most compelling things too is the silence. The only thing that we hear is the wind and the sound of the river and the sound of birds. There's no air-traffic, there's no boat traffic, there's no any kind of traffic.

What is a caribou and why is it important that they be protected?
A caribou a unique member of the deer family. There's a few things that are especially unique about it. The males and females both have antlers and both shed those antlers very year. The way that their antlers are shaped, different scientists or different biologists have different opinions about why they have the little prong that comes out of the side. Some of it has to do with the rut and getting through the small willows here. … They're very majestic animals. They're an animal that moves mostly at a trot, very seldom do you see a caribou walking. They're always trotting, they're always moving. They have all sorts of adaptations that other deer don't have. They can eat lichen. They're one of the only mammals that is able to digest lichen, which makes them more hearty to survive the harsh winters. Their hooves, also, the padding on their hooves retracts in the winter so that they have a sharp digging surface so they can dig through the snow.