Reviewed 6/18/2010

Where Mountains Are Nameless, by Jonathan Waterman

Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Jonathan Waterman
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005




ISBN-13 978-0-393-05219-0
ISBN-10 0-393-05219-2 280pp. HC/BWI $24.95

It takes a man (or woman) who has walked a stretch of ground to properly judge whether or not it is barren. The much vaunted "ground truth" requires this close and patient inspection, and I tend not to trust the testimony of those who short-circuit the process in their headlong rush to judge the place fit only for uses that benefit them.

Jonathan Waterman has kayaked the Beaufort Sea along Alaska's north shore multiple times. Over 18 seasons, he has hiked the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the lands to either side: Canada's Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks, and the land to the west of that refuge, the so-called 1002 Coastal Plain.1 He was a Denali Mountaineering Ranger and a wilderness guide. He has covered the ground.

"My beliefs about oil development are not all subjective, or enlightened outdoor experiences, or thoughts gleaned from the insight of the Muries. Nor do I think it's necessary to walk the ground of northeast Alaska to make an informed decision on the controversy. For twenty-one years I have kept an open mind, listened carefully to both developers and conservationists, and read widely. I would like to believe that objective-minded readers—if they peruse the diverse titles in the bibliography that I learned from—can make a wise choice on oil versus wilderness. We cannot have both."

– Page xii

Some will find here a contradiction between my words and what Waterman says in the quote above. But look a little deeper. It is only because he, and the Muries, and people like them, have walked that ground to truly see what is there on the remote Alaskan tundra that we have the vital information on which to base our decision about the Refuge. For more on that decision, see "Men of Wilderness," linked below.

Waterman weaves a well-nigh worshipful account of the fascinating lives of Olauf and Mardy Murie into his tale. This is not untoward; the pair achieved great things, and are respected by many. Both won the Audubon Award for their conservation efforts, and Mardy was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For much of his time in Alaska, Waterman followed in their footsteps.2 Fragments of his own life populate these pages, in passages that reveal his deep knowledge of and love for the region and its denizens, both plant and animal, and frequently rise to eloquence. The book's twelve chapters are split evenly into two parts, each of which begins with a timeline of relevant events: for Part I, 1889 through 1953; for Part II, 1956 through 2003. The chapters do not follow this chronological plan, however; Waterman's narrative, like his wilderness life, is not so time-bound.

Nineteen black-and-white photographs let us glimpse the lives portrayed in the text. The first group shows the Muries, the second the terrain and wildlife of the North Slope. The Acknowledgements reveal the amount of research that went into the book; it is considerable. Five appendices provide further details of oil exploration and use. A larger map3 following the Prologue (pages xxii and xxiii) shows the Refuge. There is a Bibliography with 149 entries, and a good index. I rate this book a keeper for anyone interested in wildlife conservation or the history and future of energy policy. For everyone, it is an enjoyable and remarkably informative read.

1 The name refers to Section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), signed by President Carter in December 1980. The Act doubled the size of ANWR, but protected just half the coastal plain. The western half was to be studied by Congress for final disposition as protected wilderness or oil prospects. That decision is still pending. (See notes, pp. 22 and 124.)
2 Waterman says in his Acknowledgements that he's carried a copy of Olaus Murie's compendium A Field Guide to Animal Tracks around since puberty, and was inspired to write this book by the film Arctic Dance: The Mardy Murie Story.
3 This map is apparently missing some rivers.
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