Refuge, Wilderness and Restoration After the Trauma of War

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Just one of Homer, Alaska’s stunning views. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

By Shauna Potocky

Volcanoes rise out of the mist and gray mirror of the Alaskan sea as the arrival of Fall storms bring rain and cold winds. Born out of the Ring of Fire, islands form the volcanic chain of mountains and ridges that define the West Coast of Alaska and make up the Aleutian Islands, which provide remote habitat for an impressive number of birds and marine mammals.

Alaska’s coastline, including the Aleutian Islands, provides an impressive array of opportunity for a diverse range of species. From mudflats to rugged rocky outcroppings, sandy beaches or cobbled shores, the diversity of landscapes are as engaging as the animals found upon them. Some of these areas are easy to visit while others are incredibly remote, yet all of it comes to life through the story of its conservation.

As recognizable as this landscape is on the map, and as remote as much of it may be, what might be more elusive is the story of its protection. Much of the Aleutian Islands as well as significant amounts of Alaskan coastline are protected and designated as the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Its story steeped in lore, history and war comes to life at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and Refuge headquarters in Homer, Alaska—a town famously known for being “at the end of the road.”

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The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center located in Homer, brings the story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge into incredible focus for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

It seems timely to revisit the story of the refuge, particularly the Aleutian Islands, because as the world faces war and human displacement today. This story serves as an important reminder of what war does, and how in the face of conflict wildlife and the environment become remarkably vulnerable and often go unprotected. The story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge demonstrates what can be accomplished once all the turmoil ends.

The great islands that make up the Aleutian chain and other areas of the current refuge were first utilized and inhabited by people for what is estimated to be over 11,000 years ago. Today, a rich diversity of first peoples, including the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Unangan, Aleut, Dena’ina Athabascans, Alutiiq Koniag, Haida and Tlingit, continue to be deeply connected to this landscape. Their lives are filled with the knowledge of specialized skills, culture, and stories of this unique place.

Beginning in the late 1700s, expanding into the 1800s, these people were affected or displaced by an insurgence of Russian fur hunters. Russian settlements were focused on resource extraction and, once established, their skills and appetite, fed by the fur trade, depleted the area of several marine mammal species, resulting in an awaking.

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Non-native species, such as foxes, were introduced to the islands, resulting in significant impacts to native species. Foxes were introduced in order to establish and grow fur trading operations and are a significant part of the story on display at the visitor center.  Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Due to the decline of sea otters and other marine mammals, Russians began restricting areas for hunting, essentially setting up refuge areas in order to assure the survival of species they depended on.

In 1867, Alaska was purchased from Russia by the United States. American hunting, development and extraction ensued. Over the course of generations, Alaska was opened for exploration, hunting, fur trade and adventure.

Then something unbelievable unfolded—an event that would mark a moment in time and the world’s history.

In 1942, during World War II, the Japanese began a campaign to take the Attu and Kiska Islands of the Aleutian chain. This followed actions in defiance of a fur hunting treaty and escalating tensions. Once the insurgence began it displaced island populations and included taking a number of native people hostage. This conflict launched the Aleutian Campaign in which Allied troops and military operations ensued on the islands and in the surrounding areas. The islands were horribly affected. Island populations were displaced, communities destroyed, bombs and ammunition rounds unleashed, military operations and encampments established, while contaminants and military waste were discarded and left behind after the war effort.

In the end, the landscape and islands were left ravaged and damaged, scarred with the remnants of bombshells and littered with abandoned waste. They stood in disarray; masses of twisted metal, discarded ammunition, contaminants and a newly raw history of war lay in its wake.

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Remants of war on display at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In Alaska the tides are dramatic—a deep pulling out and heaving in, over great distances and heights, similar to a great pendulum swing. Just as remarkable as the tide and its swift sweeping change, the future of this landscape began to emerge into something new, something with wider protections and a future. In the end, something positive is emerging out of the turmoil.

Wildlife refuges and wilderness areas protected significant tracks of land and habitat along the coastline of Alaska. In 1980, via the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), signed by President Jimmy Carter, astounding areas of Alaska’s protected lands, along with newly protected areas, including the Aleutian Islands, were consolidated and established as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Refuge view in Homer SPotocky

Located at the base of the visitor center is a small wildlife refuge area that allows visitors to see the land-sea connection. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In total the refuge encompasses approximately three million acres, with a mission to conserve habitats and species, manage international treaties related to the habitats and species, as well as provide for local subsistence. The refuge is also used to conduct scientific research and maintain water quality in ways that support the primary role of the refuge.

Today, people carrying out the mission of the refuge are working to repair the damage, specifically on islands that have been touched by fur trade or war. There is significant work being done to remove invasive species, such as rats and foxes, that were introduced to the islands. These introduced species out-compete, destroy and kill native species by eating the eggs of nesting birds, killing young and upsetting the balance of an ecosystem that initially developed without the presence of land-based predators.

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Exhibits bring the story, restoration, research and habitats to life for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In addition, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is focused on removing contaminants as well as accumulations of waste and debris that were left on the islands during wartime.

Today, the incredible acreage of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge protects diverse habitat for millions of seabirds and an wide array of marine mammals, while doing something even bigger. With respect to the Aleutian Islands, it serves as an example of what protection, restoration and conservation can look like after truly troubling times. It proves that war is not the end.

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Detail of intertidal display in the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

What the refuge represents to me is that after the conflict is over, when the heartbreak and battles are done, we can choose to pick up the pieces and do something bigger, do something positive. We can take all that seemed broken and left behind, the battle scars, the waste, the heartbreak of war and repair it. Collectively and carefully, damaged landscapes can once again become incredible habitat or a place people can feel comfortable calling home.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Getting Below the Surface

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By Shauna Potocky

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the marine wonders of the world; it is a biological hotspot—featuring an array of remarkable habitats and teeming with biodiversity. The sanctuary includes sandy beaches, rocky intertidal zones and a near-shore deep-sea canyon—all of which contribute to the unmatched concentration of marine life, world class natural resources and endless opportunities for recreation, tourism and appreciation. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is nothing short of a national treasure.

In fact, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBMNS) is just one of thirteen National Marine Sanctuaries—each of which features world class attributes, making them eligible for federal protections. Examples include Olympic Coast, Thunder Bay, Gray’s Reef, Florida Keys and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuaries. Many people are not familiar with the National Marine Sanctuary system, their various locations and the innovative programs that set them apart as learning institutions. Equally important is helping people understand the valuable work sanctuary staff conduct in order to manage and protect these remarkable places.

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The National Marine Sanctuaries mission as stated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), who manages them, indicates that their role is to “conserve, protect and enhance the biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy of these underwater places.” The authority for establishing and protecting the sanctuaries comes from the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and NOAA reflects on this as, “one of the strongest pieces of ocean protection.”

Paul Michel, Superintendent of the MBNMS, has a deep passion for connecting people to the ocean and our national marine sanctuaries. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask him about the features that make the MBNMS so unique:

“The MBNMS is unique because of its land-sea connection; it includes 275 miles of California coast—this land-sea connection allows it to be directly adjacent to communities and accessible to user groups. The sanctuary also features an abundance of wildlife—it supports great migrations, charismatic mega fauna such as killer whales, blue whales and more. It is home to the California sea otter, and many of these animals and their unique habitats can be accessed or even seen from shore. For example, the deep–sea canyon is close to shore, it provides easy and accessible wildlife viewing.” He also added, “Because of the concentration of marine science institutions around the MBNMS, it serves as the West Coast’s equivalent of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (a world class facility focused on oceanographic and marine research). The MBNMS itself benefits from equally focused science monitoring and research.”

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It is true, the sanctuary is home to remarkable institutions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and Long Marine Laboratory, the marine science campus for the University of California Santa Cruz.

Regarding the greatest successes of the MBNMS, Michel reflected on a few recent achievements, including the newly built state of the art visitor center located in Santa Cruz, California, as well as the development of a model water quality protection program. In addition, the sanctuary has developed SIMoN, the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring System , a website that focuses on long term monitoring of adjoining sanctuaries focused on tracking shifts within these protected ecosystems.

Along with these highlights, the sanctuary also features some of the best subject matter experts in kelp forest ecology and deep-water benthic characterization. Field science isn’t the only area of expertise though, as one of the most recent additions to the sanctuary’s programming demonstrates— new to the suite of programs is Your Sanctuary, a television production that helps visitors to the area connect to the value and resources of the bay.

As stunning as the sanctuary is, it also faces significant challenges. When considering some of the issues facing the MBNMS currently, Michel stressed that there is a need for increased funding for operations and programming. An increase in funding could then help with addressing some of the critical issues such as the pressures and impacts from land-based pollutants, such as chemicals, plastics and other waste that end up in the water, as well as tackling the issue of marine debris, such as lost fishing gear and nets that can continue to capture marine life, damage resources or run the risk of entangling marine mammals such as seals and whales. Of course, as climate continues to shift, the sanctuary is also facing issues associated with ocean acidification and sea level rise—these challenges are significant and need to be addressed and managed.

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When considering if the sanctuary is ready to tackle these challenges, it is reassuring to know that it is in expert hands and ready to address emerging issues. When asked how Michel would face these challenges, he replied, “Boldly! And with the best possible science and partnerships.”

Michel’s track record proves that he is skilled at working in partnerships and one tangible example is the completed MBNMS Exploration Center in Santa Cruz, “Partners are what made the Exploration Center in Santa Cruz happen,” he stated, “Without the donated land and fundraising that covered the cost of the exhibits—it couldn’t have happened.”

Partnerships and engagement take several forms, so if you are wondering if there is a place for citizens in the management of the sanctuary, it is exciting to note that there is a substantial role for both youth and citizens to engage in protecting their sanctuary.

Citizens have the opportunity to participate as a member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, a working group that consists of representatives from various stakeholder viewpoints including business, tourism, education, and citizens-at-large, all seated along side government and agency representatives. Together the working group provides guidance, recommendations and advises the Superintendent on sanctuary issues or management decisions such as on the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program, Oil and Gas Exploration and much more. Participation on the council is an empowering and insightful opportunity—it is one not to be missed if you are inspired to make a difference.

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Today, there are thirteen NMS and one monument—but why stop there? Perhaps you know of a special marine area that is worthy of sanctuary status. If so, Michel shared this exciting opportunity to get involved—currently there is a program inviting coastal communities to submit nominations for establishing new sanctuaries. With only 1 percent of marine habitats protected worldwide, and only thirteen sanctuaries set aside in the United States—it is clear that together we can do more than just be awed by our nation’s marine wonders— we can actually protect them as national treasures and legacies for the future—perhaps the one you nominate will be number fourteen.

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Photo Credits: Kirk Keeler Photography