An Outdoor View: Wilder yet

Editor’s note: The last of a series of three columns about wild lands in Alaska.

A few years ago, my son, Vic, my grandson, Derek and I floated the Koktuli River, a stream seldom floated by anyone except a few moose and caribou hunters and the occasional fisherman. This remote stream flows mainly through land owned by the State of Alaska. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources manages the river corridor for “primitive use experience.” In other words, it’s open to the public for doing what we wanted to do: experience some wilderness.

Just getting there was an experience. From Anchorage, we flew in three different small aircraft, the third of which was a float plane that set us down on a pond near the headwaters of the Koktuli’s south fork. At that point, we were 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and 20 miles from the village of Iliamna.

For seven days, we were in wilderness. There was something new around every bend. A great horned owl buzzed our raft. We paddled past ospreys perching in trees. Vic caught a silver salmon on a fly, a “first” for him. Derek caught his first grayling and saw the first bear he’d seen outside a zoo. We camped on gravel bars. At night, silence lulled us to sleep. Our last camp was on a long gravel bar on the Mulchatna River, two miles downstream from the mouth of the Koktuli. We frittered away three sunny days, fishing for silvers and pike, and relaxing by the campfire. The only sounds were the river and the ducks, geese and sandhill cranes.

I don’t often use the word “magic,” but it’s apt for describing time spent in wilderness. You feel as if you’re alone in the world, and the world is new. It’s a different feeling than being in an easily accessed place, where people and signs of them are at best a distraction and at worst a threat.

Wilderness has many values, and is worth protecting, but someone is always wanting to “improve” it. Mining interests want what would be the world’s largest open-pit mine at the Koktuli’s source. Such a development would almost certainly affect the river’s water quality and quantity. Any pretense of pristine wildness would be lost, along with the region’s rich fisheries. Another threat to public land is the proposed coal mine on the Chuitna River, on the west side of Cook Inlet. Plans are afoot to strip-mine right through the river.

Threats to our land, air and water never end, and that’s why I disagree with the contention that “the government owns too much land in Alaska.” Many activities, including oil drilling and mining, can be done on public land. Just because it’s public doesn’t mean it can’t be developed.

We forget that public land is our land at our own peril. As responsible owners, we need to be aware of what’s happening on our land, and to act in its best interests. Whether the land is private or public, contributing time, energy and money to protecting it is part of the deal.

One of our responsibilities as land owners is dealing with our various government entities, the managers of our lands. It’s important to remember that government employees are our servants — and equally important that they know this and act accordingly.

Being human, our public servants sometimes do things that need to be undone or changed. They need to know what you’re thinking. They also deserve a little respect. The current fear, hatred and disrespect of government that’s infecting our country through the media is not a healthy thing.

Public lands belong to all of us, so we all need to learn the issues and take part in the debates, many of which are controversial. The wilder the lands, the more pressure there is to develop them, or at least that’s how it sometimes seems.

That might explain why many environmentalists have a knee-jerk reaction to protect wild lands. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand this reaction, and I occasionally feel my own knee wanting to jerk. After all, they aren’t making any new wilderness.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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