More by destiny than by design, Margaret "Mardy" Murie helped bring the conservation movement to life. On Sunday, at the age of 101, she died. Sadly, a portion of the arctic wilderness she helped protect is also facing mortality.
In 1924, Murie became the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. That year, she married a young naturalist named Olaus Murie. They honeymooned on a 550-mile dogsled expedition through the Brooks Range of Alaska.
There, they researched the great, migrating herds of caribou for the erstwhile U.S. Biological Survey, now called the Fish and Wildlife Service. Thus began a torrid, lifelong love affair with Olaus and the wilderness. Together, they trekked deep into the Arctic Circle, chronicling the beauty of the land and the magnificence of its animals.
Since the 1930s, however, the pristine land north of the Brooks Range has been caught between various developers and conservationists. In 1956, Olaus and Mardy conducted scientific surveys of the Sheenjek River, the first step in a crusade to protect the area now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Olaus and Mardy told the world of the wonders of the place: the wandering Porcupine caribou herd, wolves, muskoxen, wolverines, snow geese and scores of other species. The refuge is home to more than 160 bird species, 36 kinds of land mammals, nine marine mammal species and 36 types of fish.
Olaus died in 1963, but Mardy kept fighting to protect the land and its animals. When President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964, Mardy Murie was by his side. And when Congress debated the expansion of ANWR in 1980, Mardy Murie came to Washington to deliver a ringing defense of preservation:
"I am testifying as an emotional woman, and I would like to ask you, gentlemen, what's wrong with emotion? Beauty is a resource in and of itself. Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska; that is her greatest economy. I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by, or so poor she cannot afford to keep them."
When President Carter signed the ANWR legislation into law, he personally thanked Mardy Murie. But the ANWR law was a compromise. Most of the refuge (a total of nearly 20 million acres) was protected from oil and gas development, but 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain were declared potentially available to the oil industry, if Congress so consented.
The Bush administration is eager to secure that consent and to drill in ANWR, because of the potentially significant stores of oil there. Congressional advocates of drilling keep trying to open the refuge, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says is "among the most complete, pristine and undisturbed ecosystems on earth." In the Capitol at this moment, the fate of this frontier again hangs by a thread. A serious regimen of energy conservation, meanwhile, is not on the agenda.
Advocates of drilling suggest, falsely, that the drilling would affect only 2,000 acres. And they say the North Slope is not worth protecting. In her twilight years, Murie was a living testament to the fact that the refuge is not, as the oil lobby says, a barren and ugly wasteland.
They called Mardy Murie the "grandmother of the conservation movement." She didn't live to see the day her progeny, the wilderness, was opened to business. Let's hope we don't, either.
Copyright 2003, The Daily Camera and the E.W. Scripps Company