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Restraint and Hope: Lessons From Lake Baikal and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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Something strange happened in the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s. During a period when both countries were focused intently on space, nuclear weapons, and post-war development, two environmental issues made national headlines. Even stranger, the places that attracted attention were thousands of miles from either of the political centers in Moscow or Washington, D.C. Against these odds, however, Lake Baikal and what later became known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge transcended politics and geography to emerge as powerful environmental symbols.

In contrast to the modern battles, the initial campaign to protect the northeast corner of Alaska was proactive and not reactive. Few had visited the area and no one had plans to drill the coastal plain; oil hadn't even been found in Prudhoe Bay. To conservationists, the coastal tundra and adjacent mountains possessed unparalleled cultural, ecological, spiritual, and recreational values. Starting in the 1950s, they began a campaign to protect the area, which culminated on December 6, 1960 with the designation of 8.9 million acres as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. (The range became a refuge in 1980.)

Located in the middle of Siberia, more than 2,500 miles from Moscow, Lake Baikal's emergence as a national environmental symbol began in response to an audacious dam-building plan to blast out the mouth of the lake's only outlet with a 30-kiloton bomb. Around the same time, word leaked out of plans to build two pulp plants on Baikal's shoreline. Much to the surprise of promoters within the Soviet Union, protests made it all the way to the Communist Party Congress, presided over by Leonid Brezhnev, where Nobel Prize-winning writer Mikhail Sholokov decried the threat to "glorious, sacred Baikal." Although the dam was blocked, the plant was built, but as historian Paul Josephson notes, because of the public fight over Baikal, "an entire segment of Soviet society began to act not only for Baikal but for other environmental issues."

Lake Baikal and the Arctic Refuge stand as the apotheoses of their respective country's environmental movements. Through a combination of beauty, size, and diversity, each place has inspired generations of people to act on behalf of the land. The refuge and Baikal have come to symbolize not only primal, sacred wilderness but also the struggle over values and who controls natural resources. Do we as a species have the political will to exercise self-control and to show a bit of humility?

Getting to Know the Refuge and Lake Baikal
I have been lucky enough to visit the refuge and Baikal. In August 2005, I spent eight days rafting the Aichilik River across the 1002 area, the region of the coastal plain that can be opened for drilling in the refuge. At Lake Baikal, my wife and I volunteered for two weeks with the Great Baikal Trail, a Russian non-profit organization that is developing, maintaining, and promoting a 1,500-mile-long trail around the lake.

For many, the most notable attribute of the Arctic Refuge and Lake Baikal is their size. At 19.6 million acres, the refuge is the size of South Carolina. If it were its own park, the coastal plain alone -- the area most in contention politically -- would be the third biggest national park in the lower 48 states. Lake Baikal is the world's deepest, most voluminous lake, holding more water than the Great Lakes combined, about 20 percent of all the non-frozen fresh water on Earth. The lake is so big that if its northern tip was located in Seattle and the lake ran due north-south, its southern tip would touch the Oregon-California border, a distance of 400 miles.

But size has its disadvantages. Those who propose drilling like to observe that the refuge can withstand an impact because said development would only mar a tiny percentage of the site. After flying over the coastal plain, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann said, "Energy exploration would be limited to a small 2,000-acre lot within ANWR. That is comparable to a postage stamp sitting on a football field."

At Baikal, proponents of the pulp contended, and still contend, that the great volume of the lake could absorb any potential pollutants, plus the lake was "self-cleaning" and "self-purifying." Or as a Russian tour guide proudly said on one of our train rides, "If you throw a dead cat into the lake, it will disappear within 24 hours." She was referring to the dietary habits of the lake's nearly mythic crustacean, a pinhead-size shrimp known by its scientific name Epischura baicalensis. Epischura occur nowhere else on Earth and keep Baikal clean by filter feeding on algae, bacteria, and organic material; people are known to experience vertigo looking into the water, where you can see down an amazing 130 feet.

The Epischura are one of at least 2,500 animal species that inhabit the lake, most of which, like Epischura, are endemic. Such diversity results from Baikal's great age, which gave animals time to evolve and speciate. In contrast to 99 percent of Earth's other lakes, which formed in the last ice age, Baikal opened more than 25 million years ago as two plates of the Earth's crust began to pull apart and form a basin. No one knows how species will ultimately respond to the introduction of pollutants, but within five years of the pulp plant's opening, 95 local species had disappeared at Baikal.

Defense Is Still Necessary

Despite more than a half century of efforts to protect them, Lake Baikal and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge still face threats. Just four years ago, last minute protests by thousands led President Putin to demand that a new pipeline be moved at least 25 miles from Baikal's shore. The original plan located the oil pipeline within a half mile of the lake. And in early November 2008 came reports that the Baikal pulp plant would close permanently by February 2009. It did close, but then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin allowed the plant to reopen in early 2010. Like others before, he relied on Epischura for reopening the plant. He stated, after taking a submarine to the bottom of Baikal, that "there is practically no pollution," and even submitted plans for relaxing environmental laws to allow the plant to reopen. At present, the pulp plant has come online, though in November, Russian Minister of Natural Resources Yuri Trutnev declared that the plant should be closed down.

Year after year the refuge faces an onslaught of proposals for development. The most recent affront arose during the 2008 presidential election with Sarah Palin and her followers' "Drill, Baby, Drill" refrain to open up areas such as the Arctic coastal plain to oil exploration. This rhetoric will surely escalate with the climate-change-denying, Tea Party-influenced, GOP takeover of the House of Representatives. In late 2010, with the fiftieth anniversary of the refuge on December 6, however, the refuge gained a new advocate when President Obama signed a proclamation stating that "we must remain committed to making responsible choices and ensuring the continued conservation of these lands." And, as he has done during every session of Congress since 2001, on January 5, 2011, Massachusetts representative Edward Markey introduced legislation to designate the refuge as a wilderness area.

Perhaps the most surprising political aspect of Lake Baikal and the Arctic Refuge is that the vast majority of people who wrote to protect them in the 1950s, and who continue to defend them at present, knew and know that they would probably never see either place in person. These landscapes showed that no matter what their circumstances, people have a deep attachment to the land. Iconic and transcendent, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Baikal have given people the gift of hope, that we can rise above our perceived needs and that we have the courage and imagination to restrain ourselves from harming the world's sacred places.

Note to readers: I'd like to thank Subhankar Banerjee and Christine Clifton-Thornton for their helpful comments and edits for this piece. Copyright 2011 David B. Williams. Crossposted with ClimateStoryTellers.org.

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