The Overstory: The Last Great Wilderness

Season One, Episode Two

November 27, 2018

In this episode we take listeners to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is now threatened by oil-drilling. Plus also: A radio diary from Olympic snowboarder Justin Reiter, a conversation about equity in the outdoors with Teresa Baker, and sustainable living advice from Mr. Green.

The Overstory: That’s the word ecologists use to describe the treetops. There’s a riot of life above us, but usually we’re so focused on what’s right in front that we forget to look up. Season One took us from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the wilds of Patagonia. Season Two will continue to explore the world with changemakers and storytellers who offer different perspectives of the natural world. See all episodes.


In our second episode, Jason Mark, editor of Sierra Magazine, brings us stories about oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, equity and inclusion in the outdoors, and how climate change is threatening Olympic sports like snowboarding. The episode features journalist Brooke Jarvis, Gideon James of the Gwich'in people in Alaska, Teresa Baker, founder of African American Nature and Parks Experience, and professional snowbaorder Justin Reiter. We also have a Mr. Green on to answer a question from Dave in Cincinnati.

(1:16) Drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Jason Mark: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska is one of the most remote spots in the whole country. It's a symbol of the sanctity of wild places and thanks to federal protections that have been in place since nineteen sixty, the refuge has remained mostly untouched by industrial civilization but now the refuge is in jeopardy.

Writer Brooke Jarvis traveled to the heart of the refuge last summer to experience this wilderness and to talk to some of the people fighting to keep it wild.

Brooke Jarvis: This is what it sounds like in the most remote part of Alaska.

<nearly silent, soft winds>

To get here, I flew on a bush plane for hours over uninterrupted wilderness and landed on an air strip that was a little more than an area of flattish tundra cleared of large rocks.

It's the middle of the summer and the days are so long that they blend together into one single, seemingly endless day. A day that lasts for weeks as the sun nods at the horizon but never slips below it. As remote and wild as it is here, it is far from isolated. You'll come around a bend in the river and see in a strange new landscape, some familiar old friends on summer vacation. Geese and mallards and swans, falcons and threshes and sparrow and sand pipers. Each are a reminder that the refuge is directly linked by Aegean migration, to every U.S. state, and every continent but Australia.

Of course, there are other signs that the arctic is connected to the rest of the globe. Although it's far from factories and traffic jams and other major sources of carbon pollution, human-driven climate change is warming it faster than anywhere else on earth. As much as two times faster.

In the Arctic, the signs of change are everywhere. Melting permafrost that makes ponds and wetlands drain and hillside collapse. Disappearing sea ice that leaves polar bears starving and opens new shipping lanes. Animals and plants whose ranges are moving northward.

TV reporter 1: And we're talking about ANWAR.

TV reporter 2: ...Crude oil...

Brooke Jarvis: Most of the country, the Arctic refuge means filibusters and lobbyists as least as much as it means caribou and bears.

TV reporter 3: This argument has gone on for so long that--

Brooke Jarvis: The decisions that guide the future of this area are usually made from far away often by people who have never seen it. Those decisions have generally had more to do with competing visions of the arctic wilderness. What is symbolized about our nation, what we value, who we are than with the place itself.

TV reporter 4: The story of this new state is a big story of a big land. A rich land that is being developed by hard-working settlers who are building a new region out of our last frontier.

Brooke Jarvis: The decision to protect the arctic refuge traces to a young forester named Bob Marshall, a New Yorker who dreamed of being an explorer. In 1829, he spent a summer in what he called, "the most unknown section of Alaska, the Central Brooks Range." He was so impressed by the grandeur and the adventure and the lives of the local indigenous people that he returned again and again. Years later, when the U.S. Forest Service asked him to contribute recommendations to report about developing Alaska's resources, he had a surprising response, "Arctic Alaska should not be developed at all."

Marshall saw the enormous arctic lands as a chance for America to finally stop chasing the Westward Frontier, the country’s so called "Manifest Destiny".

TV reporter 4: Alaska's vast undeveloped regions are a storehouse of natural

Brooke Jarvis: Even people who would never see the Alaskan arctic, he believed, would benefit from simply knowing that it still existed in the condition that it always had.

TV reporter 5: ...There are twenty million acres of forest...

Brooke Jarvis: "And Alaska alone," he wrote. "And the emotional value of the frontier be preserved."

TV reporter 5: ...There are cold rivers that are teaming with fish...

Brooke Jarvis: Marshall believes the Alaskan arctic carried a significance far bigger than itself as a national last chance sort of wilderness that had shaped the character of America. The land was officially protected in 1960 at the end of the Eisenhower Administration. But within a decade, oil deposits were discovered elsewhere on the north slope, sparking a fight over whether to permit drilling that continued for nearly four decades. And then, last December this happened.

Senator Lisa Murkowski: It is a very historic day of course but it's also

Brooke Jarvis: That's Alaska's S Lisa Murkowski who's worked to open the arctic refuge to drilling throughout her political career. She's standing next to a beaming President Trump on an outdoor podium in Washington D.C. on an unseasonably warm day.

Senator Murkowski: It doesn't feel like it right now, but the winter solstice is the shortest day, the darkest day.

Brooke Jarvis: The president had just signed a massive tax bill with a largely overlooked writer.

Senator Murkowski: Thirty-eight years now, to open up ANWAR. This has been a multi-generational fight, this is a bright day for Alaska. This is a bright day for America.

Brooke Jarvis: Just like that, after decades of debate, the law now requires oil leasing on the coastal plain of the arctic refuge.

Senator Murkowski: To those who live there, to those who raise their families there and to those who are looking to live for generations, know that our promise to you today is a bright future. One where we care for our environment, where we care for our people.

Gideon James: For the life of me, I'm ashamed of our legislation down there.

Brooke Jarvis: This is Gideon James, one of senator Murkowski's constituents. I spoke with him at his home in Arctic Village, a Gwich'in community near the southern edge of the refuge.

Gideon James: All they are is just a puppet through the big corporate-- the big companies in Alaska. That's all they are. That's where the problem is. Maybe I speak for animals and my people. They have passions where they know how to do things for themselves. They're skillful. They're knowledgeable. My dad was like that. My grandfather was like that.

Brooke Jarvis: The Gwich'in people have lived in this area for thousands of years hunting game and moving with the seasons. The Gwich'in sometimes call themselves the caribou people and James and everyone I meet in Arctic Village tells me how important the animals are. How much they rely on them, how much they fear that something could happen to the caribou that would change their lives forever.

Brooke Jarvis: When President Trump took office, the Gwich'in held an emergency meeting to reaffirm their opposition to drilling in the refuge, something they have done regularly since 1988 but the law changed anyway and they found themselves in a new and more alarming reality.

It's strange to move through a landscape that is both timeless and running out of time. For days, our raft followed a gray river through the coastal plain passing groups of caribou by the dozens and hundreds. Though I tried, I couldn't imagine the land sliced with roads and dotted with well pads.

At the end of our trip into the refuge, our raft arrives at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. It's so cold that I keep my life jacket on over two layers of long underwear and four coats. We camp on a narrow gravel spit threaded with the enormous footprints of a polar bear. I walk out onto the sea ice dusted with snow and dimpled with turquoise pools of melt water. By the next morning, the ice is too slushy to walk on.

It makes me think of Olaus and Mardy Murie, husband and wife naturalists who traveled widely in the arctic and argued passionately for preserving this area. After one trip, the two recorded this letter.

Mardy Murie: The land of the north that offers us beauty of landscape, the charm of plant growth, bird and mammals that have found this a good place in which to live. Will we have the wisdom to cherish such places? To leave such parts of the earth in their natural state? To visit them humbly and with appreciation?

Olaus Murie: Our decisions are a measure of our growth. Sincerely, Olaus Murie.

Mardy Murie: Sincerely, Mardy Murie.

Brooke Jarvis: For the Murie's the debate over the fate of the arctic wilderness represented the real problem of what the human species is to do with the earth. Although this is a question we found ourselves answering over and over, we can't always assume that we'll have another opportunity to ask it again. For The Overstory, I'm Brooke Jervis.

Jason Mark: To read Brooke's full article, it's called The Last Stand of the Last Great Wilderness, go to our website,

(10:52) Mr. Green Tackles Where to Start to Make Your Community Green

Jason Mark: Now, we got a little advice from Bob Schildgen, a.k.a. Mr. Green. In this segment, we ask listeners to call in, ask Bob a question and he'll give us awesome wisdom about how to live a little bit greener. Today we got a question from Dave in Cincinnati.

Dave: Yeah, hi this is Dave from Cincinnati. How are you Mr. Green?

Mr. Green: I'm doing okay for my age.

Dave: Well, I'm calling today because I'm part of a small nonprofit organization here in Cincinnati called Shomrei Olam. We're the Jewish environmental advocates of Cincinnati. The name Shomrei Olam means "guardians of the earth."

Mr. Green: Oh.

Dave: And that's what we feel our responsibility is so part of our mission is to get the households in our community in the greater Cincinnati area to be more green. It's one thing to be aware of a lot of the issues confronting the environment but it's another thing to do something about it.

(11:54) We only have so many resources, so what, how do we go about that? Or where should we put our effort is really our big question.

Mr. Green: The very first thing that I would present as a challenge is to get people out of their big, fat cars. The average new car is still only getting 25 miles to the gallon! No better than it was four years ago. One of the reasons is people are purchasing pick up trucks and SUVs instead of efficient, small cars. And I find it absolutely staggering that this has not changed. So that's I think a major, a major thing that could be done is abandon the idea that you have to have a gigantic car in order to survive. That would be my number one request of everybody. What do you think of that?

Dave: I think that's a great idea.

Mr. Green: Well good, I like to have some endorsements. The other thing is the amount of electricity that Americans use. Our average household use in kilowatt hours is almost double that of say Japan or Italy. And I don't think-- and if our quality of life was double theirs, I think it could be justified in some way or other, but not when the quality of life is not significantly better. So those are a couple of the things that drive me crazy. Cars, electric consumption, and those are the two biggest things that could easily be improved I believe.

I don't know why this message has not gotten across in a broader way. Do you have any idea about that?

Dave: It's a real tough one and it's such a challenge.

Mr. Green: Yeah, the moral argument doesn't always work does it?

Dave: You know, I've spent my whole life thinking it should and I believe it should so I'm going to stick with that.

Mr. Green: Well, I urge you to keep it up.

Dave: I will if you will.

Mr. Green: Okay, I promise you.

Dave: Great.

Mr. Green: Thanks for being as virtuous as you can be.

Dave: You're welcome. I appreciate your words of support.

Mr. Green: Okay, great. Thanks a lot.

Dave: You're welcome.

Jason Mark: That was Bob Schildgen with Ask Mr. Green. He's our advice columnist for sustainable living. If you've got a question you want answered, just go online, Look for Mr. Green at the top of the page, click on it, send a question to Bob and we might have you on the show.

(14:45) Climate Change and Snowboarding, Thoughts from an Olympic snow boarder

Jason Mark: For Justin Reiter, there's nothing better than a big snowstorm. He's a former Olympic snow boarder, he's now a coach and he's dependent on that winter fresh powder to do his sport. But lately, winter weather has gotten way less predictable.

Jason Mark: We talked to Justin at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado the day after a big late season snowfall and that had him feeling a little bit nostalgic but also a little bit worried.

Justin Reiter: One day we were riding up the lift at Copper Mountain and I saw this guy come flying out of the trees on one ski standing sideways and I was mesmerized. I had never seen a snowboard before in my life. From that point on, that's all I said is that "I want to snowboard, I want to snowboard."

Justin Reiter: For a long time I was a blue collar athlete. I was working at the golf course here, polishing shoes while trying to pursue an athletic career in the gym and on the mountain. I moved to Park City. That there's a United Ski and Snowboard team, it has a training center out there called The Center of Excellence. I moved out there the summer of two thousand and thirteen and started living in my truck and dedicated myself to training myself to training full-time to make a solid push for the Olympics.

So in two thousand and fourteen after living in my truck all summer, I made the Olympics and to walk in, represent my country and it was you know a dream come true. The year after the Olympics, I decided to ride for one more year and I had a great season. Won my first World Cup in Moscow. I have some pretty special memories from my entire career, I'm very thankful for those and each day that you get to drop on your board is a gift.

When your career is based around winter, yeah it does matter to me that winter sticks around. And now, the effects of climate change in the last seventeen years, eighteen years now, what I've seen is the season comes later. And it's not just that it's becoming shorter, it's actually shifting. The storm will move in with rain, transition to snow, and then transition out again with rain. And to see the rain now is, as a snowboarder who loves powder and loves light snow, it just kinda it stings a little because you're like, "Man, if this was snowing right now, it would be epic tomorrow."

 And when you're actually out, snow does this really amazing thing where it dampens sound. So you'll be out there in utter silence. And when you're deep in the back country, removed from the roads, removed from the lifts, you're surrounded by trees. And on a day that it just snowed and you just hear your feet crunching under the snow and you stop moving and there's absolute nothing. The only thing that you can really hear is the big fat flakes that are just gently landing on your shoulders. And just these little "fsss, fsss, fsss." And that's it. Utter silence. That's something to be truly reveled in and treasured and preserved. You don't find that outside of nature.

(18:25) Outdoors for All - Equity and Inclusion in Outdoor Recereation

Jason Mark: Today in the United States, there's a movement underway to ensure that wild nature and outdoor recreation is open and inviting to people of all kinds regardless of race, regardless of ethnicities, sexual orientation, or income. Here to talk with us about that is Teresa Baker. She's a leader in that movement. She's the founder of the African American Nature and Park Experience. Teresa, welcome.

Teresa Baker: Thank you for having me.

Jason Mark: So, I was looking at your Facebook page, which is where you do a lot of your organizing through Facebook on the African American Nature and Park Experience and it says that there are a lot of faces that are currently missing from the conversation on conservation. What are the voices or the faces that are missing?

Teresa Baker: Well, when I started this work back in 2013, my face was missing. Black and brown faces were missing from the conversation and most importantly from the work of environmental protection.

Jason Mark: Why were those voices missing or what over the historical barriers that prevented a lot of people of color from going out to wild places?

Teresa Baker: I don't necessarily believe they are missing. They're just not represented in outdoor organizations, in outdoor retailers, in outdoor brands. So what has happened over the past couple of years is we've started to create our own organizations. So that we can tell our story. So now it's not a matter of connecting, it's reconnecting to these spaces. So I think the more organizations start to show us in their marketing campaigns, in their social media feeds, people will understand that we're here too because in 15 to 20 years, people of color will be the number one demographic. And if we don't care about the environment today, and if we don't reconnect with these outdoor spaces, who's going to be around to protect the redwoods and the oceans and the mountains?

Teresa Baker: If we're not involved in that, we're going to feel excluded therefore we will not care. So it's vital that organizations and companies start to reach across the table and work with us on these environmental protection efforts.

Jason Mark: When you were growing up, did you and your family spend a lot of time hiking or in the outdoors?

Teresa Baker: So we spend a lot of time in regional parks, state parks, hiking, camping, exploring. My family also owned a horse ranch so we would go to that ranch almost every weekend. So we grew up around farm animals, wild animals. It just came second nature to me as I grew up that I would have this attachment to outdoor spaces.

Jason Mark: There is this very long history of people of color leadership in the outdoors like for example, the Buffalo Soldiers. It’s essentially these freed slaves tasked with guarding creation. Right? And having this really incredible sort of charge put upon them.

Teresa Baker: Buffalo Soldiers were the first rangers, the first stewards in Yosemite and a lot of people don't know that history. And many of them were newly freed and their options were to be sharecroppers or to join the military, which many of them did. And their stories continue to go untold in regards to our National Parks. So we are pushing forward efforts to make sure that those stories are told.

Teresa Baker: In 2014, I did a trail retracing from the Presidio of San Francisco into Yosemite where I partnered with the Presidio Trust, National Park Service, and Robert Hannah. And Robert Hannah is the great-great grandson of John Muir but he wasn't aware of that history. And after we returned from that, Robert reached out to me and he said this was an amazing story for him to hear about for the first time.

Teresa Baker: He works at the capital in Sacramento and he created a bill to rename the highway into Yosemite "Buffalo Soldier Memorial Highway." The signs went up this past January.

Jason Mark: You talk about creating welcoming experiences. So what would the welcoming experience for and African-American, Latino families look like?

Teresa Baker: Oh, gosh. So perhaps having signs in various languages could help. Having rangers that look like us can help. Having campaigns that include us can help. There's a lot that can be done and I can honestly say that over the past couple of years I've seen some change in the National Park Service. They are really working on these efforts. They understand the importance of this so I'm seeing the change. What I need to see now is that change from organizations such as Sierra Club. Organizations such as SCA. Outdoor brands such as Patagonia, Marmot, REI. We need to see that change because once these well known organizations and companies start to speak to this issue, people will listen.

Jason Mark: You know and again, so much of this is about representation. It's like who do we see, whose on the cover of outside magazine or whatever. Do you think some of the bigger brands, are they starting to change the kind of range of folks that appear in their ads and their promotions?

Teresa Baker: Yes. Patagonia a couple year back, actually the C.E.O. Rose Marcario reached out to me after she saw a video on lack of diversity in the outdoors. And that started conversations between myself and Patagonia on what can they do to promote diversity and inclusion.

Jason Mark: So a big thing that your organization, African American Nature and Park Experience does is to organize events to sort of create a container you create a social media kinda meme and you toss it out there. One of them you did I think it was called "Hike like a girl." What is "Hike like a girl?" Because I can imagine some women saying, "Well, I'm not really feeling that." But I wondered how it was received and how the day went.

Teresa Baker: Oh my god. That's an amazing event that I created three years ago. Yeah I just started it because I often hike alone and I have a lot of women that reach out to me and ask me for advice on where to go, what to do. And I thought let me create and event that would encourage young girls and women to get out on the trails and hike. A lot of women thought ‘I want to solo hike.’ So on this particular weekend, even if you're solo hiking, there's thousands of women across the country hiking there with you. So that was the sole purpose of that campaign and how its blown up over the years is amazing to me.

This year, the American Hiking Society and VASK partnered with me on that campaign. We've had thousands on women across the country participate and the OIA which is the Outdoor Industry Association recognized that campaign and gave us an award this year for it.

Jason Mark: That's awesome. Thanks so much for coming in.

Teresa Baker: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Jason Mark: And that was Theresa Baker. She's the founder of the African American Nature and Parks Experience. You can learn about her work on Facebook. Go to Facebook. Look for her page. It's again, the African American Nature and Parks Experience. Follow her. Learn about her work and get out there in nature.

Notes and Thank Yous

The ending soundscape is from Bernie Krause and recordings he took in the far reaches of Alaska, in the Boreal Forest northwest of the Ch'in community of Arctic Village. 

The Overstory is produced by Josephine Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum at Future Projects Media with help from Danielle Roth. Our theme music is by Jeff Broadski. Allison Kegel is our editorial fellow. Margaret Murie provided field recordings from the Arctic Refuge. And big thanks to Topher here at the Berkeley J School Studio.