By Matt Skroch and Suzanne Little
It’s 10 below zero and the sun just peaked over the horizon despite the fact that it’s 10:30 in the morning. The snow squeaks under foot. The frigid air takes our breath away. What better day to climb into a small plane and fly over the wilderness of Alaska’s vast Eastern Interior. That’s exactly what staff from The Pew Charitable Trusts did on a recent foray to the Great White North, taking with us the representatives from the Gwich’in tribal community and other conservation groups. Our purpose: to get a birds-eye view of the seven million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands currently up for administrative review – an opportunity that will dictate which lands are conserved for their wilderness character, and which lands will be opened to hardrock mining, among other things.
Departing from Fairbanks, our pilot Todd Mackinaw mapped out a route that would take us over the expansive White Mountains, towards the Wild and Scenic River of Birch Creek, past the community of Fort Yukon and the mighty Yukon River, banking a return over the mythical Upper Black River and the Gwich’in Athabascan community of Chalkyitsik.
We piled in the plane and were strategically seated according to our function in-flight: videographer, photographer, map reader, cultural interpreter.
One of the first amazing scenes after clearing the Fairbanks airspace was the White Mountains National Recreation Area, the only National Recreation Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which would be opened to mining under one scenario the bureau is contemplating.
After flying past the White Mountains and across Birch Creek, we came upon the mighty Yukon River, which inspired Robert Service’s poetry and whose bounty for centuries has fed communities located along its 1,980 mile length. The Yukon River and its tributaries were a central route for prospectors during the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush that waned after gold was discovered in Nome in 1899.
Flying farther East, we flew over the much-braided Upper Black River, one of the most remote regions in Alaska. The 2.4 million acres of the Upper Black are roadless and wild, where the Bureau of Land Management acknowledges that 100% of the lands meet the definition of Wilderness as provided by law. Despite this, the agency’s preferred proposal only seeks to protect 26% of the area for its wilderness characteristics, putting this region’s unique wildlife and cultural heritage at risk.
As we made our way back to Fairbanks, we passed over the Fort Knox gold mine, giving us all a view of what it might look like if mining was permitted in the White Mountains National Recreation Area.
Back on the ground, we’re newly inspired in our collaborative work to conserve this wild place that embodies the American wilderness spirit while preserving a subsistence way of life that supports the small communities that exist within this great expanse. In the long run, Alaska’s Eastern Interior will provide for America’s integrity and prosperity if stays the way it is: wild and free.