Alaska: Wild Frontier No Longer

Alaska. The word tumbles out like a wild stream, carrying a cascade of images: Grizzly bears, glaciers, vast mountains, Native villages. It's the Alaska we believe in, an American Eden for lovers of wilderness. But as change sweeps the state, the veneer is cracking.

In the southeastern panhandle, the famed Inside Passage bordering British Columbia, cruise-ship traffic now brings a million visitors annually. All summer, big ships dwarf small downtowns in Juneau and other communities, while throngs of visitors cram the narrow streets. And it's not just the economic engine that revs at a frantic pace. In all directions, buses, helicopters, planes and boats race from town, bringing thousands on increasingly compact "adventures of a lifetime." By ocean, they seek out whales or salmon; by road, they tour the sights; by air, they fly low sorties over mountains and glaciers—and their noise destroys the serenity of the once-quiet hiking trails.

As big ships dominate waterways, smaller tour boats seek remote bays. But their industry has grown, too, and now the bays all seem full. When we camp along shore, even in remote wilderness, tour boats anchor nearby and naturalists lead groups ashore. When we anchor our sailboat in quiet coves, we look across twilit waters at cruise ships lit-up like floating cities, then secure our dishes against their big wakes.

We have our own brand of sprawl, too. Faster, bigger boats improve access to distant bays, overcoming rough seas the same way modern off-road vehicles conquered the West's backcountry. New cabins and lodges appear, filling the undeveloped spaces between mines, clear-cuts, hydro projects and roads. Along 150 miles of mainland near Juneau, only Holkham Bay lacks development. Boats of all sizes visit, prompting proposals for a new lodge.

Meanwhile, big multinationals want to tear into south-central Alaska's Chuitna and Matanuska valleys to mine coal for Chinese power plants. Already, pollution from the Asian coal rush puts mercury into our wild salmon, and our diets. In southwest Alaska, Bristol Bay's salmon are threatened by the mammoth Pebble Mine proposal. Networks of roads and gold, copper and molybdenum mines are planned across the state, and Shell will pierce the Arctic Ocean's floor for more oil.

But the immediate changes from tourism, development, mining and drilling are eclipsed by the transformation wrought by changes in the climate. Along coastal Alaska, our glaciers are undergoing indescribable wastage. In Prince William Sound, the Columbia Glacier has shrunk by a whopping 10 miles in 30 years. South of Juneau, an enormous tidewater glacier recently slumped more than 200 vertical feet in 12 months. Earlier this decade, I watched as over a mile of ice, in some places as thick as 800 feet, vanished in a mere 18 months, making even our newest maps obsolete.

I'm not the only one with map problems. In Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range, rapidly thawing permafrost is unleashing immense landslides, reshaping mountainsides. Similarly, hotter, bigger fires re-write the vegetative maps of Alaska's interior. The stories only hint at the upheaval across the north.

And things are getting downright weird in the Arctic. Ever hear of a grolar bear? As disappearing sea ice drives polar bears south onto land, and warmer weather lures grizzly bears northward, interbreeding has created a new animal with features of both species. The far north's character is further altered as moose and red fox follow trees spreading onto the tundra, and ice-free seas enable salmon to colonize arctic streams.

Many species can't adapt. While the polar bear's plight is well known, the habitat of two seal species is also disappearing with melting sea ice. In western Alaska, shrinking late-summer ice forces thousands of walruses into dense congregations ashore, when they would ordinarily be dispersed among floating ice. In this brand-new phenomenon, stampedes leave hundreds dead, mostly young, while the crowding puts pressure on clam beds near the shore.

In the interior's boreal forest, caribou struggle against warmer winters, which bring more freezing rain and autumn thaws than anyone can remember. Ground lichens, the caribou's winter staple, become inaccessible, encased in ice, and starvation and lower birthrates shrink the iconic herds.

Alaska Natives also have worries. Accelerated erosion from disappearing sea ice and melting permafrost threatens scores of coastal villages. It's not just homes, traditions and livelihoods sinking into the sea. Collapsing shores disgorge a wealth of artifacts. As they disappear, so do connections with the past and discoveries about the continent's early people.

In Alaska, we eat and breathe the changes. This is still a great place to live, but as the wildness fades, it's getting harder to call it a frontier.

Tim Lydon writes in Girdwood, Alaska.

This essay first appeared in High Country News.