Movie poster for The Arctic - Our Last Great Wilderness
Movie poster for The Arctic - Our Last Great Wilderness

The six-sto­ry Boe­ing IMAX The­ater screen at our Pacif­ic Sci­ence Cen­ter was filled by the vast, thou­sand-mile migra­tion of 115,000 ani­mals of the Por­cu­pine Cari­bou Herd in Alaska’s Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge, a land­scape once regret­tably described as “flat white noth­ing­ness” by Unit­ed States Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Gale Nor­ton dur­ing the admin­is­tra­tion of George W. Bush.

The Pacific Science Center's Boeing IMAX Theater
The Pacif­ic Sci­ence Cen­ter’s Boe­ing IMAX The­ater, viewed from near the Space Nee­dle, where Braid­ed Riv­er screened The Arc­tic. (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The cam­era lens has been con­ser­va­tion­ists’ equal­iz­ing weapon in a decades-long strug­gle to keep the Refuge from falling into the clutch­es of Big Oil.

A fif­teen-year-old non­prof­it pub­lish­er named Braid­ed Riv­er, an off­shoot of Moun­taineers Books, has stirred the public’s con­scious­ness, first with the book “Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge: Sea­sons of Life and Land,” and more recent­ly on the big screen “The Arc­tic: Our Last Great Wilder­ness.”

Braid­ed Riv­er has also cel­e­brat­ed the salmon as a life-giv­ing resource in Alas­ka, with a book “The Salmon Way” and an exhib­it of pho­tog­ra­ph­er Amy Gulick’s work at the Seat­tle Aquar­i­um. It has focused on rapid, alarm­ing melt­ing of per­mafrost in the Arc­tic (“The Big Thaw”) and the Northwest’s crit­i­cal­ly endan­gered moun­tain cari­bou (“Cari­bou Rainforest”).

A Braid­ed Riv­er Sol­stice Bash, last week at the Sci­ence Cen­ter, put the focus on peo­ple who have turned out these remark­able works.

It was host­ed by the publisher’s cre­ator-chief exec­u­tive Helen Churil­lo, phil­an­thropist Tom Cam­pi­on – whose Cam­pi­on Advo­ca­cy Fund under­wrote the film — and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Flo­ri­an Schulz, whose lens­es have cap­tured gray whales in the Pacif­ic, griz­zly bears in the Rock­ies, and musk oxen in the Arctic.

These folks are play­ing a long game. So often, nowa­days, the word “demand” is fea­tured in pro­gres­sives’ advo­ca­cy. Impa­tience leads to strate­gic mistakes.

On many fronts, how­ev­er, copi­ous per­sua­sion is required.

The Arc­tic is a case in point, long viewed as a land­scape suit­able only for exploita­tion, to open pit mines and oil drilling platforms.

The U.S. For­est Ser­vice long saw South­east Alaska’s 16.7‑million-acre Ton­gass Nation­al For­est as a sup­pli­er of old growth trees to pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sit­ka. (A third was planned for Juneau.)

Tom Campion speaking at a screening of The Arctic - Our Last Great Wilderness
Con­ser­va­tion­ist Tom Cam­pi­on speak­ing before the screen­ing of The Arc­tic — Our Last Great Wilder­ness (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

I met Tom Cam­pi­on a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago, part of a rain-drenched Pilchuck Audubon Soci­ety pick­et line out­side a fundrais­er fea­tur­ing then-House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich. It seemed an unusu­al venue for the co-founder of Zumiez, a vast­ly pop­u­lar young peo­ples’ clothing/gear out­let that sells more skate­boards and snow­boards than any­body else.

He’s done well, and (with wife Sonya) done a great deal of good, includ­ing sup­port­ing the work of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Institute.

A gal­va­niz­ing episode, two decades ago, was Sub­hankar Banerjee’s book on the Arc­tic Refuge. The young Boe­ing employ­ee cat­a­logued life in the Refuge, includ­ing the dead of win­ter. Sen­a­tor Bar­bara Box­er, D‑California, erect­ed easels on the Sen­ate floor, using Banerjee’s pho­tos to argue against open­ing the Coastal Plain of the Refuge to oil drilling.

Retal­i­a­tion was swift. The Smith­son­ian scaled back an exhib­it from the book. Banerjee’s pic­tures dec­o­rat­ed a cor­ri­dor lead­ing to a load­ing dock. Mes­sages, includ­ing words of ex-Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter, were delet­ed. The reac­tion was more swift: Muse­ums around the coun­try booked exhibits from the Refuge.

Cam­pi­on start­ed tak­ing polit­i­cal fig­ures to and show­ing films about the Refuge. Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell spied both a wolver­ine and bar­ren ground griz­zly bear through a spot­ting scope. For­mer Pres­i­dent Carter paid a vis­it, ignit­ing denun­ci­a­tions from Alaska’s drill-baby-drill politicians.

Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer has seen Schulz’s film.

I drove around the south­ern Selkirks, in north Ida­ho and British Colum­bia, with Flo­ri­an Schultz in 2002. The young Ger­man pho­tog­ra­ph­er, whose moun­tains at home are devel­oped and orga­nized, fell in love with the wide open spaces of North Amer­i­ca. With his book “Free­dom to Roam,” Flo­ri­an made the case for wildlife cor­ri­dors up and down the Rock­ies, to pre­vent the iso­la­tion of pop­u­la­tions of birds and mammals.

Tom Campion answers questions about The Arctic - Our Last Great Wilderness
Braid­ed Riv­er sup­port­ers lis­ten to Tom Cam­pi­on field ques­tions about the ongo­ing effort to pro­tect the Arc­tic Refuge (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Cam­pi­on has nur­tured Schulz, from ear­ly day repairs to both Florian’s Volk­swa­gen bus and his bad back, nowa­days to the bush planes used in pho­tograph­ing the Por­cu­pine Cari­bou Herd.

Helen Churil­lo, at Braid­ed Riv­er, has help spot­light­ed such tal­ent as pho­tog­ra­ph­er Steve Kazlows­ki, who chron­i­cles the life of polar bears, and sci­ence scribe Eric Scigliano, who immersed him­self in Siberia writ­ing The Big Thaw.

Cer­tain Braid­ed Riv­er books are joy­ous­ly celebratory.

An exam­ple: Paul Bannick’s “The Owl and the Wood­peck­er,” and Bannick’s sub­se­quent study of Great Snowy Owls. At hol­i­day sea­son, Bannick’s owl books make for a gift that is intel­li­gent but also entrances young readers.

The Arc­tic Refuge has sur­vived peri­ods of great danger.

With heavy lob­by­ing by Big Oil, the first Bush admin­is­tra­tion was on the cusp of get­ting Con­gress to allow drilling. Then the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and fouled Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Near­ly thir­ty years lat­er, a back­door pro­vi­sion was slipped into the 2017 Trump tax scam bill to cre­ate a legal path to drilling. (Cantwell tried to remove it, and lost in the Sen­ate on a 52–48 vote.)

The Trump regime rushed to sell oil leas­es just before leav­ing office. Sur­prise! Major oil com­pa­nies did not bid, mind­ful of pub­lic oppo­si­tion and the prospect of years of law­suits. One small firm that did bid has since pulled out. The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion has declared a mora­to­ri­um on lease development.

A sub­stan­tial polit­i­cal donor, Tom Cam­pi­on was able to break bread recent­ly with Pres­i­dent Biden. He used the time to lob­by against the Wil­low Project, a major oil devel­op­ment pro­posed by Cono­co-Phillips just west of Prud­hoe Bay.

With ris­ing gas prices, the oil indus­try and Repub­li­cans in Con­gress have again tak­en up Sarah Palin’s cry of “Drill, baby, drill.” No mat­ter that oil com­pa­nies are sit­ting on thou­sands of leas­es that they haven’t devel­oped. Or that the Key­stone Pipeline was designed to trans­port dirty Alber­ta oil to the Gulf Coast for export.

The drilling mes­sage is drilled home dai­ly by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cathy McMor­ris Rodgers, R‑Washington, who stands to chair the pow­er­ful House Ener­gy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, should Repub­li­cans regain con­trol this November.

The strug­gle to pro­tect wild places will go on.

As the late Sier­ra Club leader David Brow­er observed, con­ser­va­tion­ists can­not afford to lose even once. I’ve raft­ed the Can­ning Riv­er, which marks the west­ern bound­ary of the Arc­tic Refuge. On the west side, aban­doned rusty oil drums, years-old vehi­cle tracks on the tun­dra. Oil explo­ration would bring drilling plat­forms, haul roads and pipelines to the “last great wilderness.”

Here’s wish­ing a hap­py anniver­sary and long life to Braid­ed Riv­er. It is the cre­ation of folks with music in their souls. Its books and exhibits change minds.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Adjacent posts