It wasn't always so. Once upon a time, the term conservative was largely synonymous with conservationist. In the early years of the last century, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became our first great environmentalist president by establishing our national parks system. Later in that century, Republican president Richard Nixon helped add large tracts of land to this system. Nixon also signed several crucial environmental bills protecting our nation's wildlife, most notably the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Yet over the last two decades, as the Republican Party veered off to the extreme right, conservatives' historic support for the conservation movement has transformed into open hostility. These days Republicans use the term conservationist mainly as an epithet.
Our wild lands are as much a part of this nation's heritage as the Constitution itself. All Americans, regardless of political affiliation, should feel proud of our nation's historical defense of wilderness.
No wild land is a source of greater pride than Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A new exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science features a series of stunning large-scale photographs by Subhankar Banerjee documenting the wonders of this extraordinary land.
Most photographers take photos of the refuge during the summer months, leading many to believe that harsh winters leave the land covered in ice and barren of life. Banerjee spent two whole years in the refuge, capturing the abundant life that thrives there all year round and dispelling numerous myths about the refuge in the process.
Created in 1960, the refuge includes nearly 20 million acres of land, making it roughly the size of South Dakota. Home to nearly 180 species of birds as well as many large mammals such as moose, dall sheep, caribou, muskox, grizzlies and polar bears, the refuge is one of the last large and unspoiled regions on Earth.
Guided by his Inupiat friend Robert Thompson, Banerjee traveled 4,000 miles across the refuge by foot, raft, kayak and snowmobile to capture this wilderness in all its deadly fecund beauty. His full color photographs are almost too gorgeous to contemplate. The lichens clinging to the rock, the sharp reflections in an unnamed lake, the glow of the aurora borealis—these images almost lead you to suspect that Banerjee's photos were digitally enhanced. It's hard to believe that the world can possibly be that beautiful. In that sense, the show succeeds completely in communicating the spiritual value of this land. My only complaint is that the exhibit would be well-served with a detailed map of the refuge.
Over the next four years, Seasons of Life and Land will travel to cities all over the United States. Hopefully, this exhibit will serve as a catalyst, educating voters about what's really at stake when Republicans start whispering about drilling for oil in the middle of Eden.
A lot of folks might wonder why anyone should care about preserving this pristine slice of wilderness, which balances precariously at the very top of our world. As the population of the Earth continues to grow, the world's wild areas are disappearing quicker than most people imagine. If we let them vanish for good, we will show an appalling disrespect toward our descendants, who, though voiceless, depend on us to behave as responsible stewards of our fragile Earth.
The Republican proposal to drill for oil in the refuge is already shaping up to be a major election issue this year. Our own representative Heather Wilson has been a leader in the Republican effort to obfuscate the issue. Last year, Wilson offered an amendment to the House energy bill that she claimed would limit the scope of drilling to 2,000 acres. Unfortunately, Wilson's claim is extremely misleading, because her amendment did not require that those 2,000 acres be contiguous. In other words, if Wilson's amendment had become law, the refuge's entire 1.5 million acre coastal plain, the biological heart of the area, would be opened to oil exploration. Oil and gas infrastructure such as roads, gravel mines and pipelines wouldn't even be included in the 2,000-acre limit.
The estimated quantity of oil that could be feasibly extracted from the refuge is just over three million barrels, approximately the amount the U.S. consumes in six months. In other words, it's a pittance that would do next to nothing to solve our evolving energy crisis while wreaking irreversible environmental havoc on our nation's most cherished wilderness. It's time that Americans woke up and realized that the current Republican leadership would drill a hole right through the middle of our Constitution if they thought they and their friends could make a quick buck from it.
“It will be a triumph for America if we can preserve the Arctic Refuge in its pure untrammeled state,” writes Jimmy Carter in a quote displayed prominently in Banerjee's exhibit. I'm certain Teddy Roosevelt would agree.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, photographs by Subhankar Banerjee, runs through May 9 at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. $5 general, $4 seniors, $2 kids. 841-2800.