Retreat at the Edge of the Earth: In Defense of the Arctic

To date, I’ve had the privilege of leading more than 20 excursions for the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program — an initiative to connect our nation’s veterans and active military to the great American wilderness through outings and leadership opportunities. To say these opportunities represent the true intersection of the benefits between public lands and improved mental health and recovery is an understatement. The program has been transformative — giving American service members a chance to escape, connect with fellow veterans and experience hands-on challenges. My time spent in the Arctic with fellow Iraq war veterans is one of the greatest tributes to that for me personally.

In August, I joined five veterans to canoe Alaska’s Canning River to the Beaufort Sea through one of our nation’s most pristine regions — the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The untouched landscape provided an exact peaceful feeling we were all seeking. At the end of our two-week trip, we collectively experienced an unparalleled sense of tranquility and had the Arctic to thank for that. Unfortunately, if Congress votes to drill on its coastal plain, I can honestly say we will lose one of the world’s greatest places — one where I found much-needed peace and a life-changing journey.

Like fellow veterans on the trip, I continue to struggle with post-traumatic stress and the sobering realities of life after combat — including losing many from my own battalion to suicide and the ever-present challenge adjusting to everyday life. For so many veterans, wilderness offers some of the most transformative and effective healing opportunities. In fact, places like the Arctic Refuge are a physical representation of the democracy I fought to protect. These unique spaces are the land we defend, and their protection ensures that all people can explore and enjoy the beauty of our shared lands. Only with protection of this landscape — free from fossil fuel destruction and tearing up of habitat — can we make these opportunities available for others.

I will never forget the 12 days spent and more than 100 miles canoed in the Arctic wilderness with these veterans. I’ll specifically cherish the final stretch of our journey — one that solidified just what’s at stake with this refuge. On that Sunday, my team packed up our canoes and trudged several miles through marshy terrain and over basketball-sized tussocks until we reached the edge of the North American continent. There, at the edge of our nation, I stood in awe at fields alive with activity and life. I’d never seen so many species of bird in one place before. While musk ox gamboled in the river across from us, an Arctic fox scampered around the tundra, looking back at us with interest. And in the distance, just to top everything off, we could see a grizzly bear grazing. Those short moments are just that — truly special and almost unbelievable. Yet the brief escape from reality was short lived.

Just beyond the picturesque wilderness, I could faintly make out Point Thomson — Alaska’s easternmost oil and natural gas site. It was the most appropriate and visible reminder that this region and its wild places not only deserve but need deliberate protection. The chance to offer similar experiences to future generations, protect the lives of the Arctic’s native Gwich’in community and defend this iconic and threatened wildlife falls in the hands of a few decision makers this week. If a nation’s budget truly reflects its values, there should be no question in opposing the opening of the Arctic’s coastal plain for drilling. These protected, public lands are an embodiment of everything right in a democracy. Open access and equal stake in conserving them, public lands are a tribute to what makes the United States incomparable.

But the fact that this budget proposal relies on oil drilling revenues from the Arctic Refuge just solidifies the vulnerability of these amazing places. If we’re willing to drill one of the last preserved landscapes and most sensitive habitats in the world, where will we stop?

I can only hope the senators who play a key role in this decision consider the legacy they’re inevitably leaving behind. It’s a clear choice. They are either OK with the unquestionable reality of an oil spill disaster on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — one so remote that clean-up would be near impossible and one where indigenous communities and wildlife would be absolutely devastated. Or instead, we can encourage our elected officials to stand firm in preserving these wild places so that they remain places for healing and for hope.

Rob Vessels is a manager for the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors Program and an Army veteran.

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