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North to Alaska

In 1899, railroad magnate Edward Harriman invited some of the most preeminent scientists in America to join him on a working cruise to Alaska, then largely unexplored. More than a century later, the nation still has reasons to be grateful.

Wildlife, at least, has rebounded dramatically from overhunting in the years before the first expedition. In YakutatBay, Edward Harriman bought a pelt said to be that of the last wild sea otter. Litwin’s party encountered hundreds of otters, flourishing again thanks to a 1911 protection act and a reintroduction program begun in 1969.

Salmon, too, are back. In the years after George Bird Grinnell anguished over their plight at Orca, the fish became so scarce that many canneries went out of business. When Alaska became a state in 1959, it was able to set tough fishing limits that eventually restored teeming salmon runs to many rivers. But by 2001, Bob King, press secretary to then-governor Tony Knowles and a salmon expert in his own right, was concerned that some populations were in trouble again. “This cries out for many of the things Grinnell was saying back in 1899,” he said. “We need more scientific inquiry. We need to know what’s going on with those fish. And we need stronger enforcement of fishing rules.”

DutchHarbor, the sleepy little village where John Burroughs tried to jump ship, is now one of the most productive fishing ports in the United States; scientists fear it may be undermining the entire Bering Sea ecosystem. The annual harvest of just one species of fish, pollock, exceeds a million metric tons a year. Stellar sea lions, a species in serious trouble, eat pollock. Although many environmentalists insist the way to save sea lions is to limit fishing, experts aboard the Clipper Odyssey weren’t so sure. “It’s probably overly simplistic to think that is going to bring the sea lions back,” said Kathryn Frost. “We’re feeling very helpless about it. We don’t know what to do.”

Of all those touched by change in Alaska, no one has been more profoundly affected than its native peoples. Back in 1899, George Bird Grinnell predicted their demise, but in 1971 Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act which, by ceding 44 million acres and nearly a billion dollars, gave the state’s some 50,000 Eskimos, American Indians and Aleuts a full stake in its economy and its future. But they wanted more.

Over the years, native-rights activists have fought for the repatriation of cultural artifacts removed without permission from sacred ancestral grounds by scientists and souvenir hunters. So at an emotional ceremony in the same CapeFox village the Elder visited on its way back to Seattle, Litwin and his colleagues presented to a delegation of Tlingit people four totem poles and more than a dozen other items taken from their village in 1899. “It was not just objects but actual ancestors [who] were coming back,” said anthropologist Rosita Worl, a Tlingit and expedition member, after the ceremony. “I could feel the happiness and relief of the spirits.” Litwin agreed. “It’s taken a hundred years to sort through this issue,” he said. “Today that circle’s been closed.”

What, in the end, did Harriman Retraced teach those who went along for the ride? “We learned how to start asking the right questions,” Litwin said recently in his office at Smith’s ClarkScienceCenter, where he was editing a book about the trip. (The Harriman Expedition Retraced, A Century of Change will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2004.) “We saw in Alaska if you stop overexploiting individual species, they’ll come back. But what if you’re destabilizing an entire ecosystem like the Bering Sea or the Tongass rain forest? Will it come back?” Another question Harriman Retraced taught Litwin to ask is why, in light of what happened in Alaska over the past century, do we continue to treat ecosystems that are essential to our survival in unsustainable ways? “And if the answer is because somebody is making a lot of money, then we have to ask ourselves and our policy makers one final question: Is that a good enough answer?”

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