For second-grader Ethan Ellis, Alaska is synonymous with the wild. In a drawing, below the black outlines of birds, trees and wild mammals filled with strokes of brown and green crayon, Ellis wrote “animals in wilderness, and snow, nature beauty and flowers,” as integral parts of his definition of wilderness.
Ellis made the piece in April, alongside his peers in his first grade Nikiski North Star Elementary School classroom. It is now on display in the Voices of the Wilderness Art Show that opened Friday Oct. 3 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. The traveling exhibit will remain at the center until Oct. 25 before it makes its last stop for the year in Anchorage.
Refuge Educational Specialist Michelle Ostrowski said students at Nikiski North Star and Soldotna Montessori Charter School were asked to design artwork that explained, what the wilderness meant to them.
The student workshops where one of the of the Kenai Wildlife Refuge’s year-long programs celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
Ostrowski said seeing the children’s range of responses contributed to her own impression of what wilderness is.
“The kids interpreted the wilderness as anything from ‘my backyard’, to ‘a place that is wild,’” Ostrowski said. “When I think of wilderness I think something wild and free. That I am somewhere that no one has ever been before or actually feels as if no one has been there before.”
Visitor Services Park Ranger Leah Eskelin, Refuge Coordinator Candace Ward, Refuge Manager Andy Loranger and Ostrowski organized refuge activities aimed at helping visitors gain more access into the Kenai Peninsula’s designated wilderness areas for the anniversary, Ostrowski said.
Refuge staffs were tasked with educating the public on the anniversary and getting them into the Mystery Hills, Dave Spencer and Andrew Simons wilderness areas, Ostrowski said. Each has their own unique character, she said.
“The Mystery Hills unit includes the Skyline and Fuller Lakes trails and is easily accessible to hikers, fishers, and berry pickers,” Ostrowski said. “The Dave Spencer Unit includes the Swanson River and Swan Lake National Recreation Canoe Trails.”
“Conservation on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is guided by its purposes articulated in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act,” Loranger said.
The Kenai Wildlife refuge houses 1.35 million acres of the 1.92 million acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge designated as federal wilderness, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 designated the peninsula’s wilderness lands. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge includes a network of landmasses and waterways that are a part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Loranger said Alaska has more than 57 million acres of designated wilderness, including the Kenai Wilderness within the Kenai National wildlife refuge. He said the Kenai Conservation Society formed in 1965 was a large part of why the peninsula’s wilderness exists today.
Local residents including Jean Fair, Helen and Jim Fischer, George Pollard Bill and Jean Schrier and Marge Mullen and their advocacy for conservation and preservation culminated in the 1.34 million-acre Kenai Wilderness created under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation act, Loranger said.
The Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964. The national wilderness preservation system originally designated 54 wilderness areas for a total of 9.1 million acres on national forests in 13 states. That acreage has since expanded dramatically.
“Today there are 758 wilderness areas in 44 states, totaling nearly 110 million acres,” Loranger said.
The act was created to establish the process for designating federal wilderness areas, Loranger said. It also outlined the requirements for the national park service and the U.S. Fish for evaluating possible future wilderness areas, he said.
Loranger said he agrees with how the Act’s architect Howard Zahniser describes wilderness as “untrammeled … free of manipulation by man.”
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology,” former President Lyndon Johnson said of the act’s purpose. “We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
A nation-wide birthday party
The Anniversary National Wilderness Planning Team coalition called Wilderness50 was formed to identify and coordinate the various local, regional, and national events and projects, events hosted by organizations around the nation for the 50th anniversary, according to the Wilderness50 website.
Some states such as Alaska, created their own logos, Ostrowski said.
Walks for the wilderness, contests, workshops, outings, presentations, musical events, exhibits and film festivals were other celebratory events put on across the country, according to the Wilderness50’s website.
The goal of the coalition was to “engage the public, bring the wilderness community together and connect with today’s youth and with non-wilderness using groups to find the thread that ties their lives to wild places,” according to the website
From Preschool to Adulthood- interpretations of wilderness
On the wall of the visitors and cultural center hangs a white iPad with a musical piece by composer Stephen Lias. The world-renowned musician spent a week living in Denali National Park as part of the Denali Arts and Humanities Alliance and manifested his experience into a musical composition.
“This is the sixth in a series of compositions that celebrate the beauty, adventure, wildlife, and cultural heritage of our nation’s national parks,” Lias said on his website of the piece. “This rare opportunity to commune with nature, watch wildlife, hike the tundra, and be reminded of my own smallness was a deeply inspirational experience.”
Photographs printed on canvas by Mary Frische and Tom Collopy, who work with Wild North Photography out of Homer, and paintings of the Misty Fjorcs and St. Lazaria’s wildernesses make up the portion of the Voices of the Wilderness Art Show that made it to Kenai. A photograph of the Kenai Refuge wilderness taken by Berkley Bedell was the locally representative piece that traveled around the state in the show since March, Ostrowski said.
The staff at the refuge came up with ways to bring visitors into the local wild lands, from berry identification walks, to a daylong boat trip and hike on the Cottonwood Creek Trail, Ostrowski said.
However, with year-round guided hikes, snowshoe excursions, local exhibits in the visitors center and events dedicated to getting the youth involved in the refuge, such as the PEEPS Preschool programs, visitors can make it into the wilderness any time.