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DON GONYEA, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is familiar to most Americans as a place where the oil industry wants to drill.

Fifty years ago this month, two wilderness activists by the name of Olaus and Mardy Murie explored Alaska's upper Sheenjek River. That set in motion efforts to protect what is now the refuge.

George Schaller, then a young field biologist, went along. In this National Geographic Radio Expedition, Elizabeth Arnold travels with George Schaller, now a world-renowned naturalist, back to the refuge.

(Soundbite of audio recording)

Mr. OLAUS MURIE (Wildlife Activist): Dear friends, we are writing from the Sheenjek (unintelligible) from the arctic wilderness of the Brooks Range, 150 miles north of Fort Yukon and the Arctic Circle. To reach such far places it is necessary nowadays to take to the air.

(Soundbite of airplane)

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

Fifty years after Olaus and Mardy Murie recorded their famous Letter from the Sheenjek River, it's still necessary to take to the air to reach it. There are no roads here. It's just as it was when they first described it: a wide-open valley defined by a sinuous river and towering limestone peaks, a place where even superlatives seem small.

(Soundbite of thunder)

As a storm approaches, we set up our lightweight tents and pick our way across the spongy tundra toward Last Lake, where the 1956 expedition made their base camp of heavy canvas and hewn logs. George Schaller, now 73, steps nimbly over the tussocks, followed by three graduate students, just as he trailed along behind Olaus Murie in this same place 50 years ago.

Spotting a ptarmigan, he gestures us to stop.

Mr. GEORGE SCHALLER (Director of Science, Wildlife Conservation Society): I wonder where - the nest must be somewhere right here. Watch where you're stepping.

ARNOLD: Schaller is a quiet but large presence. Famous for his work in far-flung places with gorillas, lions, and leopards, he's humble and methodical, pausing with the students to examine each and every wildflower.

Mr. SCHALLER: You've got to find it almost on your hands and knees.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, (unintelligible).

Mr. SCHALLER: It's a beautiful little flower.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

ARNOLD: Armed with photographs from the 1956 expedition, today's goal is to find the exact location of the original campsite.

Mr. SCHALLER: I would guess it has to be more to the right.

Unidentified Man #1: A little more to the right?

Mr. SCHALLER: Because...

Unidentified Man #2: Because of that (unintelligible) again.

Mr. SCHALLER: Yep.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, okay. Good point.

ARNOLD: Using the photographs from the Murie's expedition, and another set taken by a geologist 50 years earlier, graduate student Forrest McCarthy(ph)is setting up a comparison study to look for signs of climate change.

Mr. FORREST MCCARTHY: All right. I just need to record the GPS location and the compass direction. Let me grab my...

ARNOLD: As the graduate students work, Schaller studies the view and makes notes in his ever-present field book, clearly happy to be back.

Mr. SCHALLER: Olaus and Mardy would be tremendously pleased to see these guys lining up to find out where the campsite was, have the trees grown, are there new trees in the picture - which there are. So, things are going at their own slow pace here in the Arctic, and that is in many ways how Olaus and Mardy worked: one step at a time, learning, advocating.

ARNOLD: The Murie's expedition was the start of a campaign for protection. And with the help of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and a growing wilderness movement, President Eisenhower was eventually persuaded to set aside eight million acres here as a range. The range was later expanded to 19 million acres, and renamed in 1980, The Artic National Wildlife Refuge: the culmination of Olaus Murie's lifework.

Mr. SCHALLER: He was a superb naturalist who taught me. When I went out with him, he'd pick up a bear dropping and look at what he's eaten. And he'd stop and he knew the flowers and he made a sketch of it. And just to see somebody in his late sixties be that full of curiosity and enthusiasm to continue what he's done his whole life, truly to see what's around him, that made a great impression on me, which I've been trying to emulate ever since.

ARNOLD: Here in the Brooks Range, with nothing but time and wilderness in every direction, Schaller is curious and tireless himself, setting the same example that Olaus Murie once set for him. The similarity hasn't been lost on graduate student Martin Robards(ph).

Mr. MARTIN ROBARDS: It's just a different way of going then a lot of what we do now. I mean, we go out in the field and we'll collect the information that fits our mission, and maybe a little bit of other data, but there's that general sort of natural history of just writing down everything that you see. And he keeps telling us, you know, when you go up this hike, write down every large mammal you see, because somebody will find it useful in the future. And it's just inspirational to watch that.

ARNOLD: But Schaller sets an example in another way. Just as he's a persistent observer, he's a steadfast advocate as well. This is his first trip back in 50 years, and he refuses to be complacent.

Mr. SCHALLER: I am happy to be here and to see that the place is intact. That's the first thing. But now there is this feeling of apprehension, of guilt even, that this place still isn't safe. So, what'll it be like in 50 years? One of the things that Olaus and Mardy left with me is that you must do something beyond yourself, and conservation is one of the most basic things you can do.

I've had a tiny part in this, but for Olaus and Mardy's sake, and all the other people who fought in this, I really wish that this will forever remain a memorial to their vision.

(Soundbite of liquid being poured)

Mr. SCHALLER: There - to Olaus and Mardy and the Arctic Refuge - forever!

Unidentified Man #3: Forever.

Unidentified Man #4: Forever.

ARNOLD: At night, over dinner, the talk is always of conservation and the Muries, of how to describe and protect the refuge. Jon Waterman, author of a book about the Muries and organizer of this trip, scratches his head over the idea that it's enough to simply defend what Olaus called the precious intangible values of wilderness.

Mr. JOHN WATERMAN (Author; Expedition Organizer): I struggled with the precious intangible values because I want to quantify those. I want to describe what they are. And maybe that's one of the great lessons of the trip is that what Olaus described then is true today.

ARNOLD: The group has marveled at how little has changed here since the Muries first documented its natural history, from the waves of migrating caribou to the late summer's crowberries. But Schaller is insistent, reminding them that little has also changed in terms of the pressures to open the refuge to development.

Brooke Williams, executive director of the Murie Center, says Schaller is carrying on the tradition.

Mr. BROOKE WILLIAMS (Executive Director, Murie Center): Most people his age are like, would just be sitting there telling stories about the past. And he's still talking about what has to be done.

(Soundbite of running water)

ARNOLD: On the last night by the river, the group is silent after listening to a 1956 recording of Mardy Murie, her voice resonating through the years in the stillness of the long arctic summer light, her question still unanswered.

(Soundbite of audio recording)

Ms. MARDY MURIE (Wildlife Activist): This, then, is the Sheenjek country, the artic wilderness of the Brooks Range. Will we have the wisdom to cherish such places? To leave such parts of the earth in their natural state, humbly and with appreciation? Sincerely, Mardy Murie.

ARNOLD: For Radio Expeditions, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.

MONTAGNE: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. To hear podcasts, go to npr.org/radioexpeditions.

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