Archive for January, 2015

Trolling on Our National Parks

Friday, January 30th, 2015
Trolling on Our National Parks

You can tell when someone is trolling on the Internet; the blatant ridiculousness and idiocy of their comments drip with a consistency similar to that of a mixture of snail slime, snot and pus. And as much as you may want to ignore it, the stench is so strong it is unavoidable. But it is even more problematic when the trolling comes in the form of a “news piece” on Yahoo. The one that drew my attention today is entitled “Our Tax Dollars Pay for What? The Nation’s Worst National Parks” by some confessed know-nothing named Bill Fink.

I say “confessed know-nothing” because the author states at the beginning of the piece that his list of five parks is “based on a minimum of research and a heap of biased analysis.”

Well, unlike Mr. Fink, I have visited four out of the five parks on the list. I have also served as the Artist-in-Residence for two of them. So, I think I am a bit more qualified to discuss whether these parks have any merit as parks. Here is my rebuttal to his drivel.

First, a general rebuttal. It seems that his qualifications for what is deemed a “good” national park are based on the creature comforts, amenities, and median temperature of the park. Comfort, however, is not an organizing principle behind the national park system. The National Park Service Organic Act provides that parks, monuments, and preserves are created “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Put simply, parks are created to conserve the natural state of the land and its wildlife in a way that does not disturb that natural state. There is nothing in that guiding law about comforts and amenities.

Next, a park-by-park rebuttal of his “review.”

1. Congaree National Park, South Carolina.

This is the one park on the list that I have not visited, let’s put that out up front. Fink’s key complaint about the park is two-fold: there is a boardwalk that forces you to not walk in the swamp, and if you step off into the swamp, there are venomous snakes. And he complains about the mosquitoes, making up false statistics about a 75% infection rate of the West Nile virus for visitors. I really only have two responses to his “critique.” First, swamps in the south have snakes and mosquitoes. It’s a fact. Anyone who does not consider that when visiting the park is an idiot. Second, the boardwalk is there to keep you out of the swamp. It’s bad for the habitat to have people tromping through it and mucking up the place. Plus, it is easier for people to see the park if they are not struggling through the swamp on foot.

A review of the park’s website reveals there is much more to it than a boardwalk and swamp. It is clearly an incredible birding area, with guided hikes and interpretive materials to learn more about the birds, and even a Christmas bird count. The park also offers incredible canoeing opportunities, but I would suppose that getting into a canoe, possibly getting splashed a little, and having to work hard like paddling is a bit much for Mr. Fink. From what I can tell, there are a variety of incredible outdoor recreation and learning opportunities in the park. If I ever find myself in the deep south, I am going to visit.

2. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska.

I have to work hard to contain myself and restrain the extreme outrage at claiming that this park is one of America’s worst. Here, Mr. Fink clearly does not understand the purpose of parks in general, or this park in particular. Mr. Fink’s complaints are that there are no roads or trails in the park, that it is raw wilderness full of bugs and bears, and that it gets cold in the winter. Mr. Fink claims that there are no roads leading to the park, but that’s not true. You can hike into the park by stepping off the Dalton Highway when north of the village of Wiseman.

Reality check, Mr. Fink – the word “Arctic” is in its title. Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost national park in the system. Cold is a given. And the fact that there are no trails or roads within the park is by design. Seven of its 8.4 million acres are federally-designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. That means no roads, no motorized vehicles, no facilities. It is recognized as the premiere wilderness park in the United States. In his book Alaska’s Brooks Range: The Ultimate Mountains, John Kauffman notes that those deciding on the character of the park “borrowed a karate term to call it a black-belt park.  Not for neophytes, it would be at the ascetic end of a spectrum of national parks in Alaska that would range from the comforts of hotels and cruise ships to the most basic of wilderness survival.”

It also has a raw, inspiring beauty that surpasses most other locations in Alaska. I know because I had the pleasure of serving there as the Artist-in-Residence in 2007. That trip introduced me to the Arctic and a quality of beauty I have never before experienced, and most people will never have the pleasure to know. I have returned to that park for five additional trips since.

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3. Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

Mr. Fink’s assessment of Badlands National Park is that it is a “half-assed Grand Canyon” that is nothing better than a washed out creek bed you might find at home, plus it has lots of rattlesnakes. I feel sorry for people that have so little joy in their life, I really do.

Badlands National Park, established in 1939 as a national monument then as a park in 1978, is a jewel of the Great Plains. Aside from its incredible beauty and accessible wilderness, it is rich with history. The Stronghold Unit in the southern part of the park is co-managed by the Oglala Sioux tribe and was home to many of the Ghost Dance sites in the 1890s, as well as the infamous Wounded Knee massacre. It is also a paleontologist’s dream, with one of the greatest fossil accumulations in the North America. Its intact habitat is home to wild herds of American Bison and the most endangered mammal in the United States, the black-footed ferret. And its unearthly, beautiful landscapes have been featured in films from “Thunderheart” to “Armageddon” and “Starship Troopers.”

I grew up in Rapid City, approximately an hour away from the Badlands. I made numerous trips out to the park for day hikes, camped there later when I was adult, and spent a month there as the Artist-in-Residence in 2009. I have only seen a rattlesnake once. But I have seen lots of Bison, Pronghorn, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, mule deer, coyote, black-tailed prairie dogs, and an assortment of birds. I’ve seen starry skies so bright and intense that they almost light up the landscape on a moonless night. It is probably one of the best national parks for star gazing, which is why the park offers many programs to highlight the night sky. Its pullouts are designed to maximize the experience of the park for those who don’t leave the road, but it offers rather effortless backcountry hiking and camping opportunities in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. It is also a popular destination for distance bicycling.

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4. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

Apparently, Mr. Fink really has it in for South Dakota. The only identifiable complaint I can see from him for this park is that it lacks stalactites or stalagmites. It’s clear that Mr. Fink is not a geologist, but you really do not have to be one to appreciate that Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world and the fourth largest.

Growing up in the Black Hills where Wind Cave National Park is located, I was surrounded by geological and mineralogical wonders. But it was visiting Wind Cave at an early age that launched a serious passion for geology that has lasted to this day. It also inspired many memories of spelunking in other caves throughout the area. I still remember something that our park ranger guide told us during a guided walk through the cave, that the same acid that formed the caverns can be found in Coca-Cola. There is something magical and mysterious about caves that make them a wonder to explore, regardless of whether they have stalactites or not. And even if the cave doesn’t have stalactites or stalagmites, it has a variety of other Calcite formations like boxwork and popcorn.

Setting aside what goes on below the surface, the land above is also prime habitat and home to wild American Bison, mule deer, and other wildlife. And in a prairie that has been decimated by human development, having some wild habitat, even as small as Wind Cave NP, remains incredibly valuable.

5. Death Valley National Park, California.

Mr. Fink fabricates so much information in this critique that it is hard to wonder what the point was. About the only true statements he offers are that it gets hot (it has the record high heat for the United States) and that it gets bitterly cold at night. Had he ever visited any other high elevation dessert areas, this extreme shifts between hot and cold temperatures would not be a surprise. But, of course, you can avoid the extreme 120-degree heat by not going there in the middle of the summer. Or turn on the air conditioning in your car.

Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the Lower 48, straddling the California and Nevada border. It offers a combination of dessert and mountain scenery that is unparalleled in the United States. From the wavy patterns of Zabriskie Point to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the visual compositions are a photographer’s dream. It was certainly worthy of many images created by Ansel Adams. It also offers visual puzzles and wonders, from the salt clusters of the Devil’s Golf Course to the mysterious rolling rocks of the Race Track Playa. And like the Badlands, Death Valley also offers incredible night sky views.

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I have never understood trolling as a concept. It really does not offer anything of value to any dialogue. I suppose the troller gets some perverse pleasure out of getting a rise out of people. But trolling should be left to insignificant things, not something as integral to our national identity that is our national parks. Mr. Fink mocks Ken Burns’ documentary “America’s Best Idea,” which further illustrates how much he simply doesn’t get it. Our national parks should be a thing of national pride and identity, far more than any sport or even the flag itself. It was a bold idea that set us apart from other nations, and continues to today. Our national parks are truly places of refuge, not only for the wildlife that inhabit them, but for their visitors. You won’t see massive poaching of endangered species in our parks like you see in Africa, or forests being burned out of control like they are in Bornea. In a time when increasing budget cuts further threaten the integrity of these national treasures, it is even more egregious to engage in such useless, baseless and thoughtless of a trolling exercise as what Mr. Fink has to offer. Yahoo should be ashamed of itself.

Court Sees Value in Protecting Bristol Bay

Friday, January 30th, 2015
Court Sees Value in Protecting Bristol Bay

Before the Bristol Bay Forever Initiative was ever printed on statewide ballots, it had to defend a legal challenge from an individual named Richard Hughes, the Alaska Miner’s Association, and the Council of Alaska Producers. The Alaska Supreme Court issued an oral decision allowing that initiative to go to the ballot. Today, the Court issued a written order justifying its decision, Hughes v. Treadwell, Slip Op. No. 6981 (Alaska Supreme Court, Jan. 30, 2015).

In order for a citizen ballot initiative to be valid in Alaska, it must avoid certain prohibited topics.  Under Article XI, section 7, it may not engage in an appropriation or enact local or special legislation.  The Court spent most of the time in its written opinion explaining why the initiative does not violate the anti-appropriation requirement (13 pages of the opinion).  It’s all very interesting constitutional law, separation-of-powers stuff that I will spare sharing with you.

What I find most intriguing is the second part of the opinion, where the Court examines whether it is a prohibited local or special legislation. Under this part, the Court has designed a two-part test to determine if the initiative is local or special legislation: (1) consider “whether the proposed legislation is of general, statewide applicability,” and (2) if the initiative is not generally applicable, the Court considers whether the initiative nevertheless “bears a fair and substantial relationship to legitimate purposes.” In this case, the Court readily agreed that the proposed initiative was not of statewide applicability – by its very nature, it was limited to the scope of the 1972 legislation establishing the Bristol Bay Fishery Reserve. Thus, the question for the Court ultimately was whether the initiative had a relationship to a “legitimate purpose.” The Court handily concluded that indeed it did.

As with such opinions, the Court spent time reviewing Mr. Hughes’ arguments before the Superior Court, the Superior Court’s decision, and applicable precedent. There are several key aspects of this discussion worth noting. First, the Court noted: “The record in this case also indisputably establishes that the Bristol Bay watershed has unique ecological, geographic, and economic characteristics; that the fishery has significant statewide importance; and that metallic sulfide mining poses potential water quality risks.” Referring to Mr. Hughes’ own economics expert, the Court observed that several factors “distinguish Bristol Bay from the state’s other salmon producing regions and also show its significance to the state as a whole.” The Court also referred to a University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research study showing that the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery “is the world’s most valuable wild salmon fishery, and typically supplies almost half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon.”

In conclusion, the Court noted that  “Bristol Bay’s unique and significant biological and economic characteristics are of great interest not just to the Bristol Bay region but to the state as a whole” and that the purpose of the Bristol Bay Forever Initiative — “to protect ‘Bristol Bay wild salmon and waters’ — is legitimate.”

Let us hope that this consideration of the value of the Bristol Bay fishery will translate well into the Court’s next unique issue to address in Bristol Bay, a case that has been going now for almost six years – Nunamta Aulukestai et al. v. State of Alaska. In that case, Nunamta Aulukestai, a coalition of Bristol Bay Tribes, along with some key individuals like Rick Delkitte of Nondalton, Violet Willson of Naknek and Vic Fischer (one of two surviving members of the Alaska Constitutional Convention delegation), filed suit against the State of Alaska for allowing over 20 years (now 26 years) of exploration of the Pebble Prospect with little or no public process. Their case argued that there should be a “public interest determination,” like there is with the oil and gas industry, before massive mineral exploration projects like Pebble can commence. The case lost in Superior Court following a lengthy trial in December 2010. The parties argued their case before the Alaska Supreme Court in December 2013, and expect a decision any day now.


A Loss for Bristol Bay

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015
A Loss for Bristol Bay

My very first trip to Bristol Bay to do fieldwork for my “Where Water is Gold” project started in Naknek. From there, I had to catch a ride on an Ocean Beauty tender to meet up with Everett Thompson and the F/V Chulyen down in the Ugashik District to photograph commercial sockeye salmon fishing in action. While in Naknek, I stayed at A Little House Bed and Breakfast. It was there that I first met Violet Willson, who I soon came to consider my Alaskan grandma. I learned today that she passed away on January 15.

My paternal grandmother was Edna Johnson, a full-blooded German who married a Norweigian from a farm family in North Dakota. When you went to visit grandma, there was nothing she would not do for you. She reveled in the joy of cooking and telling stories, frequently insisting that even though you may have been full, there was still more food to eat. And then there were the card games. As a kid, my favorite was “Go Fish.” I eventually outgrew the simplicity of the game, but still insisted on playing it with grandma. It was part of being with her.

Being with Violet was very much the same. Calling her place a bed and breakfast was far too underwhelming for what the place really was. It was home. Once inside its walls, you were family. She told me of her family history, her early years working as a Winter Watchman at the old Bumble Bee Cannery across the river in South Naknek, raising her five children – mostly after the death of her first husband, Guy Groat. Whenever I was in the house, I was welcome at the table for every meal. If a card game was in the offering, I was invited to the table. Most often the game was Rummy, which I had not played since I was in the Navy. I’d sit with her and watch the evening news, she’d tell me about the family represented in the wall of photos behind her chair in the living room. And those photos were just scratching the surface; her family and living history were represented in countless photo albums. The last time I visited her, I brought a stack of prints I made out of photos I had taken of her family fishing their set net sites or out on drift boats – four generations of fishermen – and photos of Naknek.

In addition to being my Alaskan grandma, she was also a fighter. She appeared in several video specials or documentaries regarding Bristol Bay and the fight to defeat development of the Pebble Mine. She was also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the State of Alaska over its permitting Pebble exploration for over 20 years without a public process. The case, called Nunamta Aulukestai v. State of Alaska, went to trial in December 2010. The plaintiffs lost, and pressed on with an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. Even though oral arguments were heard on that case in December 2013, the decision has not yet been released. It is expected any day.

I am so saddened for the people of Naknek and the Bristol Bay community for losing such an advocate for subsistence, a matriarch in the commercial fishing world, a part of history, and a revered elder. I cannot think of anyone I know who has spent any time in Naknek who does not know Violet. But I am also saddened that I will never see her again, that any future visits to Naknek will simply not be the same.

My Top Five Aurora Nights

Monday, January 5th, 2015
My Top Five Aurora Nights

A friend noted on his Facebook page that he had missed the most recent aurora borealis show, and I noted it was on my “Top Five” list of aurora nights. I actually didn’t have such a list at the time, it just randomly came out. That got me thinking a little bit about what have been some of my favorite aurora nights, focusing just on the most recent solar cycle. In the previous cycle, I was only dabbling in aurora borealis photography. And the one before that … well, I was living on Guam. Not much aurora chasing going on down there.

It turns out it was not too difficult to come up with an actual list of my Top Five aurora nights during this solar peak. In coming up with this list, I considered the length of the display, the variety of displays (shapes and colors), the display’s reach across the sky, and how active the display was.  Given those considerations, it is easy to come up with my number one.

1. St. Patrick’s Day, 2013

For years I had been working on capturing the aurora borealis in Portage Valley within the Chugach National Forest south of Girdwood. With some friends visiting from out of state (Nick Selway and CJ Kale of Lava Light Galleries and Nolan Nitschke of Bishop, CA) and a good forecast, we headed down to Portage Valley. We set up and waited, and things were quiet for  a while. Then, a deep purple glow started to appear in the sky above the mountains to the north. The first set of curtains of green appeared and danced above the mountains. The rest, as they say, was history. And for many people, this was one of the top aurora events in the last twenty years. You can read more about this night in “Portage Persistence.”

Aurora borealis over Portage Valley, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

St. Patrick’s Day, Aurora and Moon over Portage Valley

2. October 13-14, 2012

This evening started with me checking Facebook and receiving an IM from a friend asking, “Are you heading out?” My response was, “Why?” Then I checked the spaceweather data and noticed a strong aurora was in progress. Then, I looked outside, and saw aurora directly over my home in western Anchorage near Jewel Lake. It was 9:00 p.m. I grabbed my gear and headed out, exchanging texts with friends who were already on location. I stopped first at Point Woronzof to photograph the view of the aurora with Cook Inlet. After capturing several images (including one with yellow and red aurora), I headed north on the Glenn Highway. Another eruption of the display forced me to pull over on the highway near the weigh station and capture some more. I eventually spent the next seven hours photographing at various locations along the Knik River near Palmer.


October 13, 2012, Aurora over Mt. Susitna and Cook Inlet

3. January 3-4, 2015

Yes, this just happened a day ago, but it is the reason I decided to come up with this list in the first place. The aurora started showing up fairly early, but really took off shortly after 2:00 a.m. and kept going and going. I got home at 6:30 a.m. and could have stayed up for more. Others reported seeing it still going at 8:00 a.m. I include it high on this list because it really meets a lot of the criteria above, but it also had something I have never seen before, what I am calling an “Aurora Flash Fire.” Essentially, it was an auroral band of green that formed on the horizon, and then the underside turned a bright magenta. The magenta part rippled and danced very quickly for about four seconds, and then the whole band just disappeared. Poof! Gone from the sky.


Jan. 4, 2015, Aurora over Bird Creek, Chugach Mountains

 4. February 7-8, 2014

It is a really close call between this night and the night of Jan. 3-4, 2015 for third place. This night had incredible, across-the-sky, undulating displays. It had these beautiful rainbow curtains that I have never really seen quite the same on other nights. But, the main part of the show only lasted about two hours. That shorter duration is what puts this night in fourth place, but it was still a fantastic night to be out on the Denali Highway east of Cantwell.


Feb. 8, 2014, Aurora over Alaska Range

 5. November 8-9, 2013

This night had a real mix of some soft, slow-moving aurora that kind of hung in the sky for a while and others that waved about. It was also the first time I saw what I call “Shimmering Aurora” where the aurora appears as flashes that go across the top of the sky, like ripples in water. I started in Portage Valley and stopped at a few locations along the Turnagain Arm on my way home. All told, I shot for about five hours this night.


Nov. 9, 2013, “Shimmering Aurora” over Turnagain Arm


To view more aurora borealis images from these nights and others, visit my Aurora Borealis gallery. When viewing an image simply click “Buy Image” to see options for print purchases.