A Few Degrees of Separation
February 09, 2014
An area of wilderness is… defined as …an area of undeveloped …land retaining its primeval character and influence…” Wilderness Act, 1964, Sec. 2 (c).
A Few Degrees of Separation
It’s no doubt this winter has been a warm one here in Alaska. Last week four kennels rangers and 27 dogs mustered to head out on our scheduled 100 mile patrol into the Denali Wilderness. We left headquarters in a temperature of plus 38 degrees Fahrenheit and pouring rain with a forecast for higher temperatures to come. We wondered if this was a normal Chinook, or something bigger—perhaps a result of ongoing climate change?
Soon, the rain abated and the skies turned a brilliant blue but still the warm winds blew and we watched most of the winter’s snow disappear under our sled runners.
Sled runners are not designed to glide across muddy gravel. On the Tek Flats we jumped off of our sleds and ran next our teams to travel more efficiently. (NPS photo/Jayme Dittmar)
Of course, any climate scientist will tell you that weather in Alaska varies from year to year, and a single warm spell does not necessarily signify long-term climate change. But those same scientists are also predicting that these “strange” winter conditions are likely to become more and more common in the years to come, with far-reaching effects on the plants and animals here in Denali. For example, a comparison of photographs taken many years apart has documented a change from grasslands to shrubs, and from shrubs to forest in Denali. Such changes in vegetation alter the type and quality of food available to herbivores such as caribou and moose. Changes in abundance of these animals will have further effects on the predators - wolves and bears - that depend on them, creating trophic cascades throughout the ecosystem.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it is worth reflecting on the limitations as well as the success of that landmark legislation. One of the many reasons the Wilderness Act was established in 1964... “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States … and these (lands) shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as wilderness...” The Wilderness Act goes on to define wilderness: “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
We can draw a line on a map, and regulate everyone’s activities here on the ground within the boundaries. The NPS travels by dogsled rather than motorized transport within the designated 2 million acres of designated Wilderness in Denali. We follow in the historic footprints and paw-prints of rangers past continuing the tradition of travel by dogsled which began with Harry Karstens in 1922. Our ephemeral snow trails leave the landscape unchanged over the years. When the summer sun comes and melts our packed trails away, no trace remains of our winter travels with the dogs.
Sled travel doesn't produce engine emissions, cause erosion or create other permanent impacts—only two fading parallel lines remain as a signature of our passing. (NPS photo/Patty Del Vecchio)
Canine Ranger Superstars
All the NPS sled dogs pulled their weight this patrol, taking the constantly changing and challenging conditions in stride! Aliqsi and Spur are especially recognized for leading the teams through a nonexistent trail of mud, the Tek Flats, on the homestretch back to headquarters.
Aliqsi loves to remind us how cute she is by tilting her head whenever we take her picture. (NPS photo/Jayme Dittmar)