The farther north we flew, the smaller the planes got. By the time we reached our destination at Chandler Lake, located above the Arctic Circle and deep in the heart of the Brooks Mountain Range, we were in a 4-seat float plane. After two days of waiting for the weather ceiling to lift high enough to fly, a creaky but reliable 1950’s era de Havilland ‘Beaver’, the workhorse of Alaskan bush planes, delivered us safely onto the waters of Lake Chandler. Two large brown bears scampered off as we approached the shore to unload our gear and a herd of several hundred caribou grazed in the distance, keeping a wary eye on the bears and our crew. We also kept a close watch on the majestic beasts, but they were far less interested in us than we were of them. It was a sobering moment, watching the plane taxi across the lake and take-off for the return to home base. The pilot promised to return in four days to pick us up, weather permitting of course.
Our final staging area to prepare for the expedition was The Native Village of Anaktuvuk Pass, population 265, which is located at the Northern End of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Northern Alaska, about 180 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. Surrounded by the imposing peaks of Brooks Range, Anaktuvuk Pass is a remarkably isolated and barren village, accessible only by plane. Fuel, building supplies, trucks, ATV’s, food—every item required for modern day amenities arrives by plane and so is significantly more expensive than the already inflated prices of Fairbanks. In mid-July, it was cool and rainy and snow already dusted the surrounding mountaintops.
I was in this beautiful part of the world to assist a team of consultants in performing a site assessment in the Chandler Lake region, 30 miles northwest of Anaktuvuk Pass. Sundance Consulting, a Pocatello-based environmental services consulting company, had been hired by the Department of Defense, under their Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program (NALEMP) to conduct an assessment to quantify the environmental impact of previous military activity in the region. By documenting the extent of the environmental damage caused by former military activity, the local tribe of Nunamiut Eskimos potentially could qualify to receive funds to clean up the vast amounts of debris and pollution that was left behind when the military last appropriated this property from the local population. In addition to creating a detailed inventory and photographic record of the debris, we were also taking soil samples to be analyzed for petroleum and other lubricants.
As expected from reports by the tribal members who frequent the area, we found significant amounts of military waste left behind on the shores of the pristine lake. We documented and photographed (74) 55-gallon fuel drums and over (500) 5-gallon fuel cans that were left behind when military operations ceased in the area. There was also extensive miscellaneous debris, evidence of the non-native inhabitation of the area. The empty and partially empty fuel barrels and debris pose a threat to the environment in terms of ground and water contamination as well as being a physical danger to snow machines when the items are hidden by snow in the winter.
The lands in this area are still the most important resource for the native population who depend on fish and caribou for their subsistence. The Nunamiut, traditionally a nomadic tribe who moved frequently to take advantage of caribou migrations and prime fishing areas, are the furthest inland Eskimos in Alaska. They have survived in this remarkably difficult terrain for at least 10,000 years. It was not unusual for a Nunamiut man to walk over 1000 miles a year to secure adequate food for his family. The Nunamiut discovered usefulness in every aspect of their lands and wildlife and found a way to survive in an area that even today, with modern equipment and tools, few would have the skills or will to negotiate. These strong and gentle people remain one of the most resourceful and resilient clans in the world.
Today, each of the nearly 300 residents in Anaktuvuk Pass depends heavily on hunting, fishing and berry gathering for survival. The previous military activity in the area has threatened their precious resources through pollution and potential contamination of the land and waters of this remote village.
One of the tribal elders described the debris succinctly as being “out of place” and “hurtful to have to look at”. He went on to describe the native view of how the land holds a beauty and truth that is irreversibly altered when the human imprint is too invasive. My colleagues and I were greatly moved by the humility and respect the local population have for the land and the embarrassment and humiliation they feel at having their beautiful lands infested with the unsightly remains of careless human occupation. For generations their forbears have shown tremendous restraint and foresight in treating the land as a tangible partner in their inhabitation, and so the reckless and irresponsible behavior of the military is a particularly painful insult. Still, the tribal elders and council members with whom we were compelled to meet to gain permission to access their lands and explain the reason for our visit, were polite, humble and surprisingly receptive given their past treatment at the hands of government representatives. Their graciousness was a testament to their forgiving and considerate nature, and we were allowed unfettered access to conduct our investigation.
Under NALEMP, the Department of Defense is attempting to restore formerly used military sites to the condition the land was in prior to military occupation—an endeavor to right past wrongs and to atone for careless behavior on someone else’s land. NALEMP is an important program, owing as much to the sensitivity in which it is implemented as for the actual mitigation efforts. It is a small program, a token really, allocating only $12M each year to clean up the nearly 800 sites around the nation that are on Native American lands that have been corrupted by the military. But by government standards, it is an efficiently managed program that fosters harmonious cooperation between the U.S. Government and the various tribal governments—sovereign nations in their own right. The tribes are empowered to clean the site’s themselves, encouraged to build capacity and learn new skills. Cultural and religious significance of the lands are given equal weight in evaluating impact as are subsistence activities. This sentiment is so important, that to ensure we did not inadvertently disturb a site of cultural or religious significance at Chandler Lake, we were required to have archaeologists accompany us on our treks to investigate the various sites.
NALEMP is a type of earmark program, meaning that it needs to be specifically funded each year out of the Department of Defense budget. With all the talk of the evil of earmarks, this is a program that desperately needs to remain in place. It is decidedly apolitical in that it does not represent an economic boon to any specific area—NALEMP projects have been completed or are under way in dozens of states and in cooperation with at least 30 different tribes located around the United States. It is encouraging that the Department of Defense has recognized their responsibility for previous activities on Native American and Alaska Native lands, and we are honored to participate in this rehabilitative process.