A Great Migration: Trying to Save Uganda's Giraffes

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to report on a unique conservation effort in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park, home to 1,250 members of the endangered Rothschild's giraffe subspecies, of which there are perhaps 1,500 left in the world. 

With the part of the park they call home increasingly under threat from poachers and oil development, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Uganda Wildlife Authority hatched a plan, called Operation Twiga, to transport 20 giraffes across the Nile, into the southern half of the park, to create a satellite population at greater remove from the worst poaching and most oil-rich areas.

It takes a lot of manpower to wrangle giraffes. I'm at the tail end of the giraffe in this shot. 

It takes a lot of manpower to wrangle giraffes. I'm at the tail end of the giraffe in this shot. 

My story on Operation Twiga was published today in OnEarth magazine, to coincide with the US premiere of a BBC documentary on the same topic,  Giraffes: Africa's Gentle Giants, which was directed by my good friend Tom Mustill and airs tonight, October 25, at 8pm on PBS. Check your local listings and tune in!

Ranger Allan Bagonza displays poachers' snares collected recently in the park, with members of the BBC film crew behind him. 

Ranger Allan Bagonza displays poachers' snares collected recently in the park, with members of the BBC film crew behind him. 

And if, after watching the film and reading my article, your appetite for giraffe knowledge still hasn't been satisfied, check out my Flickr page for additional photos and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation for more information. And while you're there, feel free to make a donation--giraffes need all the friends they can get! 

One year on: Graham Hunt's Last Flight

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since the tragic accident in Yosemite that claimed the lives of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. The piece I wrote about Graham for Outside is here

At least 28 more BASE jumpers and wingsuit flyers have died since then, according to the BASE fatality list, an online compendium that, sadly, is sure to continue to grow as more and more people pursue the sport.

The Ecologist Who Came in From the Cold: The Saga of Phil North

I've got a new piece up on NewYorker.com recounting the tale of Phil North, a retired EPA ecologist from Alaska who has found himself, over the past three years, at the center of the lawsuits and Congressional inquiries that have kept the controversial Pebble Mine in the news, even as the development of the mine itself becomes an ever more remote possibility. 

I hope to write a longer piece on North's story, but for now, please read this one at NewYorker.com

Swimming with the Fishes: Michael Muller's Sharks

I had a chance to sit down with photographer Michael Muller in advance of the March publication of his stunning new Taschen book, Sharks: Face to Face with the Ocean's Endangered Predator. The article is out now in Man of the World's issue No. 15, but unfortunately not available online at the moment. Full text below.

POWERFUL CREATURES: Photographer Michael Muller shifts the spotlight from celebs to sharks.

Michael Muller was ten when his father bought him a Minolta Weathermatic, a gaudy, yellow hunk of plastic that was the state of the art in underwater photography at the time. His imagination quickly outpaced his access to subjects, and among the first photos he took was a snapshot of an image of a shark from the pages of National Geographic. Aspirational if not exactly honest, he told his awed classmates he’d shot the photo himself. The ruse didn’t last long and he soon admitted that he had not, in fact, learned to scuba dive while they were at recess. But the shark photo proved a rosebud moment.

“That was the first time that I really saw the power of photography,” he told me when we met recently at a café on the Lower East Side. In the decades since, Muller has built a career as one of the foremost wielders of that power, a top-shelf editorial and advertising photographer and Hollywood’s go-to lensman for ubiquitous movie posters and celeb portraits. He was in town to shoot promos for Zoolander 2 the next morning, and as we talked, a city bus rolled by on Allen Street, its side plastered with an ad for the film Deadpool. “That’s one of mine.”

But it was sharks we were there to discuss, a subject Muller has come back to with his forthcoming book Sharks: Face to Face with the Ocean’s Endangered Predator, out April 1 from Taschen. The culmination of a decade-long obsession with these apex predators, it contains hundreds of photos, shot in a beautiful, haunting style that takes its cues from Muller’s studio work rather than National Geographic. It’s also a project with a higher purpose: to change people’s perceptions of sharks and draw attention to their plight, with an estimated 100 million sharks killed each year, primarily to supply the demand for their fins and other body parts. As a master at getting and holding a viewer’s attention, Muller was convinced he could use his artistry to make people take a second or third look at an animal they already think they know all about. “It was like, what can I do? Well, I’m a photographer, I can use my skills to change people’s perceptions and to raise awareness about the number of sharks being killed.”

It takes a certain amount of confidence to believe you can coax something new out of actors who have spent their lives in front of a lens. It takes confidence bordering on insanity to believe you can take the same methods that have led to success in studio shoots, bring them deep underwater, and achieve portraits that will reorient the public’s Jaws-infused understanding of sharks. And yet that’s what Muller set out to do.

But let’s back up. It was ten years ago that Muller’s photography once again intersected with sharks when, as a birthday gift, his wife booked him to go cage-diving with great whites in Mexico. Muller has always been an adventurous, driven soul, finding outlets for his restless energy in things like triathlons (he was a top-ranked triathlete in the late 1980s) and snowboarding (he was a published snowsports photographer by the time he was 15), and has long used action sports and adventure projects as a counterbalance to his more polished studio work. So it was perhaps unsurprising that something in the experience of diving with sharks appealed to him immediately. “That was a full tourist trip,” Muller said. “But from the moment I first saw a great white and locked eyes with it, I wanted to be out of that cage. I wanted to interact. I really, really wanted to swim with those things.”

He also wanted to photograph them, but not in any way it had ever been done before. “I wanted to do something new, something unexpected,” he said. “You can’t bring the shark to the studio, so I thought, we’ll bring the studio to the sharks.” He had been researching underwater lighting for a Speedo campaign he was then shooting, and was taken with the idea of using studio-style lighting underwater to illuminate the animals. But the main commercially available lights were 400-watt strobes, which were insufficient to the task of lighting what he calls a 15-foot long “SUV with teeth.” So he began trying to figure out how to bring more powerful, 1,200-watt strobes underwater.

After several false starts, he found someone who could make the kinds of underwater housings he had in mind, allowing him to bring the strobes 100-plus feet below the water’s surface while they remained tethered to a power source floating in a boat or on a jet ski. The prototype lighting system was delivered the day before he left for a shoot in the Galapagos for watch company IWC, for which several of his assistants got their scuba certification. The trip was proof positive that the system worked. “We spent 14 days on the water down there and came back with just phenomenal photography,” he told me. “That trip was where this whole thing started. The fulfillment I felt in the Galapagos was just a fulfillment I’d never felt with any of my other photography. It was bigger than me. It was like, this is our planet, these animals. And from there, it took over.”

He eventually got several patents on the lighting system, and spent years alternating commercial shoots with increasingly sophisticated, and self-financed, shark dives all over the world. As he and his team honed their system and built an impressive body of work, he became more comfortable swimming with the animals, mostly without a cage or metal suit. The project grew in scope from great whites to all sharks as Muller began thinking more about a book that would unite his images with a strong conservation message. He began bringing celebrity friends like Ben Stiller on shark dives to draw attention to sharks’ plight, and eventually he found the perfect partner for the project in Taschen. The resulting book unites Muller’s shockingly original images of sharks with essays from conservationist Philippe Cousteau and shark biologist Dr. Alison Kock, as well as pages of species notes, shark-related statistics, and lists of resources for further information and shark conservation organizations for readers to support. There are also some incredibly disturbing shots of the blood soaked “finning” of captured sharks, which Muller shot somewhere in the Middle East. “They started pulling the sharks out, started hacking the fins, and I just got up in there. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever filmed,” he said, but he wanted to make sure it was in the book so people would understand that sharks were at far greater risk from us than we are from them. “By the time that shark fin reaches Beijing or Hong Kong, it’ll sell for $200. It’s more lucrative than drugs.”

The irony at the core of Muller’s book is that, for all that it accomplishes in redefining how we see sharks and in making them more accessible to a general audience, the images succeed largely because they carry the whiff of menace. These are powerful, perfectly designed predators, stunningly photographed and worthy of protection. But they’re still a little terrifying. And that’s sort of the point: the photos bristle with the power of the sharks and are suffused with the implied bravado of the act of photographing them.

Muller sees his gear and complications with it as a greater danger than the sharks themselves on most of his dives, but for all he’s learned about these animals, there’s always risk. It was on a dive within the past year, he says, after he and his videographer had a brief face off with two great whites, that he came to some clarity about what drew him to these creatures. “It finally hit me,” he told me. “When you’re with these sharks, especially great whites, it’s the purest form of being in the moment I have ever experienced. You’re not thinking about anything else, just that moment, right there, and I was like, ‘This is why we do this.’” 

American Grit: Navy SEAL Rorke Denver in New Show on Fox

Former Navy SEAL Rorke Denver, who previously starred in the SEAL film Act of Valor, is starring in a new, competition-based TV show debuting tomorrow on Fox. American Grit pits a team coached by Denver against teams coached by other elite veterans in military-style competitions designed to test, uh, grit.

I wrote about Denver and the other SEALs who starred in Act of Valor in an article for Businessweek in 2012, and also published an extended interview with the film's director, Scott Waugh of Bandito Brothers

The new show debuts at an interesting time, given recent and very public critiques of the ways in which some former SEALs have utilized and, according to some, exploited the SEAL "brand" after concluding their active service careers. A recent piece in the New York Times explored such criticism, and theorized that Act of Valor was a catalyst for the trend of SEALs increasingly breaking with what had been a stringent code of silence:

Perhaps most damaging to the command’s credibility, many members of the force argue, was that the leadership used active-duty SEALs as actors. Rorke T. Denver, one of the stars of “Act of Valor,” left the Navy and went on to write his own best-seller, “Damn Few,” and has another book coming this month as well as a television show premiering on Fox. 

The SEALs I've spoken to about the Times piece strongly disagree with this characterization, and I concur. Act of Valor was a strategic recruiting tool, years in the making and signed off on at every level, while the ad hoc slew of books, public appearances, and television shows that have followed in its wake have been far more self serving, done mostly without approval, and done little to benefit the SEALs. 

One Year Jail Time for Polluting Mine CEO

The operator of a western Alaska platinum mine who admitted to dumping pollution into the Salmon River was sentenced this week to a year in prison and $250,000 fine, the maximum possible in each instance. James Slade, 57, was the Chief Operating Officer of XS Platinum and was indicted with two of the company's other officers in tk 2014. 

As I reported previously, Slade and other XS Platinum executives were accused of five felony counts centered on a conspiracy to knowingly dump mine waste into Southwest Alaska's Salmon River.

Further, according to the indictment, they deliberately misled regulators and submitted false statements to hide the pollution that they knew was occurring. The indictment is also noteworthy because XSP marketed itself as a "sustainable" mine that would get its platinum from mining waste rather than fresh excavation, and, as such, signed a contract with Tiffany & Co, which has positioned itself as a leader in responsible mining by signing on to a "No Dirty Gold" campaign directed at another Alaska mine.

It was the first time in Alaskan history that a mining company faced criminal charges for a Clean Water Act violation. The Canadian Slade was left to take the fall after the two other executives indicted with him, Bruce Butcher and Mark Balfour, fled back to their native Australia.

Two other XS Platinum employees implicated in the pollution--mine manager Robert Pate and Processing Plant manager James Staeheli received lighter sentences of community service, largely because they were acting on orders from Slade and because they testified against their former boss. 

EPA Inspector General Finds no Bias in Pebble Assessment

The EPA's Office of the Inspector General on Wednesday released its long awaited report evaluating the EPA's controversial assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The mine's developers have alleged a biased EPA process was aimed at shutting the mine down pre-emptively, but the report disagreed. "Based on available information, we found no evidence of bias in how the EPA conducted its assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed, or that the EPA predetermined the assessment outcome."

The Pebble Partnership, of course, disagrred, and quickly issued a release that accused the Inspector General of whitewashing the agency's "serious bias." Pebble CEO Tom Collier called the report an "embarrassing failure," but took solace in the fact that he expected congressional investigations in the EPA's actions to continue.

And, indeed, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science Committee, promised as much, issuing a statement assailing the report for drawing "misleading conclusions without having all the facts." "The Science Committee will continue to investigate the actions of the EPA," he said. The Committee held a hearing in November to review the EPA's actions on Pebble, and a planned follow up hearing has yet to be scheduled.

The Longest Cosplay Weekend Ever

There has been plenty written on the gang of malcontents playing a dangerous game of dress-up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, much of it dismissive or satirical--and really, it's hard not to; this whole thing is farce bordering on slapstick--but some of it very good, including this account of how closely the refuge has worked with local ranchers on land use issues, and this one on the ideological path leading from the sagebrush rebellion and "wise use" exponents to this blundering and intellectually confused "occupation" of a bird sanctuary.

But I think we give this group too much credit when we treat their ignorance as ideology and their temper tantrum as a political action. Travis Longcore, a professor at USC, has a great post up on Medium highlighting a particular strain of ignorance at work in the occupation: its antagonism towards the scientists who work at our National Wildlife Refuges and the science that they do.

The Bundy brothers have commandeered the office of biologist Linda Sue Beck as their personal flophouse, somehow construing her work on fish as infringing upon their rights. As Longacre writes:

The occupiers of the refuge poke fun at Beck, her research on fish, and the normal trappings of a research station, including a dried bird in a storage area. They incredulously claim that the bird is “what they’re going to kill people over.” Presumably “they” is the federal government, and they mean to convey that Nature — the birds, the fish, the land — has no use or value.


The armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is, therefore, not just an attack on a federal property. It cuts deeper than that. It is an attack on the modern science-based approach to land management and it is an attack on the value and worth of science and scientists in the United States.


When the occupiers blithely talk of putting the land “to use” again (as if scientific research, recreation, hunting, fishing, education, and all manner of public access were not “use”), the CNN reporter mindlessly repeats the trope, implying that the occupiers have a legitimate demand in wanting to work the land, as if it were some sort of de Tocquevillian tragedy that one of the most productive migratory bird stopover sites on the Pacific flyway was not being overrun with cattle by the ranchers from Utah. No, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge does not need to be worked, and CNN should have reporters that know better than to take the claim at face value.

I encourage you to read the whole thing here. Also very good for understanding the impulses driving the occupiers: this piece in Mother Jones on the economics of small scale cattle ranching and the impact of beefpacking monopolies.

Under the Sea, with Trevor Paglen and the NSA

An undersea cable off Miami. (Photo courtesy Trevor Paglen and Metro Pictures Gallery)

When I spent a day with Trevor Paglen in September for a NewYorker.com article, we talked a lot about his most recent work, a series of underwater photographs focused on the undersea fiber optic cables that form the backbone of the global internet.  These eerie seascapes featured all of the usual ocean floor detritus--sand, coral, fish--as well as those cables.

Paglen has long made art focusing on the architecture and infrastructure of the NSA's surveillance state, and his focus on the undersea cables was no different: every cable he photographed had been revealed, thanks to the Snowden leaks, to be tapped by the NSA.

When we met, he'd mentioned his intention to take a group of people on a dive at one of the cable sites during Art Basel, and writer Brian Boucher, from ArtNet News, was part of a group that he described as "mostly well-heeled, art-loving participants [who] paid $500 each to join the artist. Among them [were] a San Francisco art dealer, a Sotheby's specialist who's in town from Asia, and a Los Angeles curator." As for the cable itself:

It doesn't look like much, as you might expect. I had somehow anticipated a pristine white plastic tube, but in fact it looks crusty, like it's covered with sand-hued barnacles. Plants that look like purple pipe cleaners are either growing around it or actually stemming from its surface. I'm not sure which, because I don't get quite close enough to tell, since Paglen has warned us, “Don't touch it."

Of course, one of my fellow divers promptly touches it. You might as well get your money's worth, I suppose.

At that moment, we've achieved what we've come here to do.

We swim along the cable for a few minutes, as all the information—all of it—courses along beneath our fins. All the emails coming from European dealers to their colleagues at Miami's twenty art fairs all happening at once, for example, and all the bank transfers from art buyers visiting from Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, going to those dealers in London and Paris. All running through that wire.

Read Boucher's full report, and see more photos, at ArtNet.

Felony Plea for Polluting Mine Operator

James Slade, former operator of the XS Platinum mine in Alaska, agreed to a felony plea deal in November for violations of the Clean Water Act.

The Platinum Creek Mine along the Salmon River near Goodnews Bay. (Photo Mark Lisac, ADN)

The Platinum Creek Mine along the Salmon River near Goodnews Bay. (Photo Mark Lisac, ADN)

As I reported previously, Slade and other XS Platinum executives were accused of five felony counts centered on a conspiracy to knowingly dump mine waste into Southwest Alaska's Salmon River.

Further, according to the indictment, they deliberately misled regulators and submitted false statements to hide the pollution that they knew was occurring. The indictment is also noteworthy because XSP marketed itself as a "sustainable" mine that would get its platinum from mining waste rather than fresh excavation, and, as such, signed a contract with Tiffany & Co, which has positioned itself as a leader in responsible mining by signing on to a "No Dirty Gold" campaign directed at another Alaska mine.

It was the first time in Alaskan history that a mining company faced criminal charges for a Clean Water Act violation. The Canadian Slade, who served as the mine's Chief Operating Officer, was left to take the fall after the two other executives indicted with him, Bruce Butcher and Mark Balfour, fled back to their native Australia.

According to the Alaska Dispatch News, Slade could face up to a year in prison and fines of up to $250,000. A hearing on the plea deal is expected in January.

Publication Day: Conversations with James Salter

Yesterday was the official publication date for Conversations with James Salter, edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais, and I am honored to have an interview included in it. Salter has long been one of my favorite authors and a personal hero, and when I had the opportunity to interview him over lunch in 2011, it was truly a career highlight. I was nervous and bumbling; he was gracious and witty and wise.

Our conversation appeared in a very abridged form in Outside, so I was happy to have a chance to go back to the full transcript and put together a much longer version for this collection. While it was being edited, Salter passed away suddenly, in June of this year at age 90, but I had discussed the collection, and my entry in it, with him and he seemed pleased at the prospect.

I've yet to get my hands on a copy, so I haven't seen the other entries, but I can't wait. And while it's a book that's sure to appeal to academics and Salter-philes of the highest order, I hope it will find a slightly wider audience as well, though for cost reasons, perhaps I should pin those hopes on the Kindle version ($14.99) rather than the hardcover ($55).


Along The Umpqua: Roseburg After the Shooting

Roseburg, Oregon, is one of my favorite places in the world. It's where my grandparents lived most of their lives, where my father and my uncles grew up, and where I got married this past August. So news of the shooting at Umpqua Community College was shocking, surreal, and deeply saddening. It was difficult to imagine that sort of thing happening in that place. In such a small-town idyll, it has left people feeling, as one local friend of mine put it, that “we have all lost a bit of our innocence.”

I had the opportunity to put down a few thoughts for Harper's about the place, its rivers, and its people as a way of trying to communicate something about it to a wider audience who might only know it now through its association with a senseless tragedy.

The piece also discusses Larry Levine, the professor who was killed with his students. Larry was also a long time fishing guide on the North Umpqua who I was lucky enough to fish with a couple times.

Read the rest of the piece at Harpers.org, and if you'd like to support the survivors and families of the victims, please visit the UCC Strong site, where the Douglas County United Way is coordinating giving.

Everest: Survivor Interviews

The infamous, tragic events of the 1996 climbing season on Everest have been the subject of dozens of articles, documentaries, and books, including, of course, Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.

An now, finally, inevitably, that story has made its way to the big screen, though in a version based more on the other accounts--notably those of Beck Weathers and Anatoli Boukreev--than on Krakauer's. The multiple accounts that came out of the tragedy offer conflicting characterizations of the events, with many other climbers seeking to correct what they saw as Krakauer's errors.

I haven't yet seen the film, but the clips I have seen are astounding in their portrait of the mountain itself. The cast, however A-list they may be, inevitably must take a back seat to the peak and capital-N Nature. (Much of the high-altitude footage benefited from the skills of cinematographer Kent Harvey, who I had the pleasure of climbing Aconcagua with in 2009.)

And perhaps that's for the best: there are simply too many characters and too many conflicting narratives of what happened there on May 10th and 11th, 1996, to squeeze into a two hour Hollywood feature. From a narrative perspective, one of the tragedy's main lessons was that memory, particularly at altitude, is unreliable, and that's perhaps too subtle a point for a film of this magnitude. 

Everest is an evergreen topic for Outside Magazine, and over the years I've written about it a number of times. The most memorable was when I tracked down and interviewed many of the 1996 survivors for a 2006 piece timed to the tenth anniversary of the disaster. Some highlights:

Charlotte Fox: "Everybody tried to do the right thing by speaking their feelings from the get-go, and a lot of them were misrepresented..."

Ken Kamler: "Right away, coming off the mountain," he says, "everyone had different ideas about what happened and who did what. Everybody saw things and remembered things their own way."

Lou Kasischke: "But it goes back to the fact that each of us saw and experienced the event from a different perspective. We each sat in a different seat in the stadium of Everest."

Ang Dorjee: "So many people have the same questions again and again," he says. "Also, it makes me sad."

Pete Athans: "There was this perception out there that we were raking in record profits from our hapless clients and flouting the environment," he says. "Nothing could have been more untrue."

Beck Weathers: "Like a good hobbit, I'm trying not to have adventures..."

Read the rest here.

Trevor Paglen Plumbs the Internet

When I started looking into the network of undersea fiber-optic cables that carries 99 percent of global internet traffic, I had many resources at my disposal, including a couple of very good books and an amazingly comprehensive interactive map. There are two realizations you come to quickly when you start looking into the subject: first, the infrastructure of our wireless world is incredibly physical, dependent on earth-bound plumbing much more than satellites; and second, that the entire system has been turned into an incredibly efficient surveillance tool by the NSA and others.

When I came across artist Trevor Paglen's work, it seemed to perfectly embody both of those points, with his investigations of the hidden elements of the NSA surveillance state forcing viewers to reckon with both the tangible internet and their own lack of privacy while using it. A piece I just published on NewYorker.com looks at the cables through the lens of Paglen's latest show, up now at Metro Pictures gallery in New York.

(Read my full piece at NewYorker.com. Paglen's show runs through October 24 at Metro Pictures, 519 West 24th St.)

On Newstands: Michigan Extreme Skiing

My story on skiing Mount Bohemia, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is in the October issue of Skiing Magazine. It's online here, but it also just hit newsstands and here's the opening spread:

Doesn't that make you want to go out and buy a hard copy? For old time's sake?

Great photos by Keri Bascetta and stunt skiing by Marcus Caston (thanks guys!) to help illustrate what it's like to ski "the Midwest's only extreme terrain" way out on a peninsula in the middle of Lake Superior. Truly unlike anywhere else I have ever skied.

Now go pick up a copy.

Dillingham, the President, and the Pebble Mine

President Obama’s recent tour through Alaska was, by most counts, a resounding success. He was received warmly (mostly); delivered two powerful speeches focused on addressing the challenges of climate change and a thawing Arctic; and even managed to have some fun, carrying himself throughout the trip with the sort of smile and awe typical of a first-time Alaskan tourist. He went on a glacier hike, ate ice cream, played with puppies (behind the scenes details on that here), and traded in his suit and tie for a windbreaker-and-hiking-boots look that one observer characterized as "outdoorsy dad." In his vacation photo album--which is way better than yours--you can practically feel his sense of relief at having escaped DC.

The milt heard round the world: When an excited spawning salmon made a mess on the president's shoes, the world heard about it.

In the Bristol Bay fishing hub of Dillingham (pop. 2,400), one of two small communities the president visited, he really let his hair down, visiting with fishermen on the beach--where an overexcited pink salmon milted on him (see above)--before participating in a traditional Yup'ik dance with local kids at the high school. On his way out of town, he made an unplanned stop at the supermarket, where he befriended a local baby.

But there was one big issue that went unremarked, at least directly, from the president’s side during his visit to "salmon country": the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive copper and gold mine that Dillingham locals see as perhaps the greatest threat to their salmon-centric way of life. The mine would sit amid prime salmon habitat, and has become a hugely contentious issue, pitting those who would welcome the mine's jobs and economic impact against the majority of Bristol Bay residents who fear that it could prove catastrophic for the salmon runs that their economy relies on. 

The Obama Administration has been an active participant in the fight to protect Bristol Bay, blocking offshore oil and gas exploration and backing the EPA's involvement. The EPA began studying the mine in 2010 at the request of local tribes and in early 2014 took steps to initiate a process that would block or severely curtail the mine's development. That process is currently tied up in litigation, following multiple lawsuits brought by the Pebble Limited Partnership against the EPA.

There were a number of rumors swirling in the weeks leading up to the president's visit, but given the legal limbo, and his focus on climate issues, it was extremely unlikely that he would address the Pebble issue directly. But his decision to visit Dillingham, the center of the anti-Pebble movement, where he had to know that every news shot would include an anti-Pebble sign, seemed to many to be an implicit gesture of support for the EPA's action against the mine.

Locals made sure that the president would know what was on their minds, lining the roads from the airport and through town with anti-Pebble signs and banners and telling every reporter who asked that salmon and Pebble were their top issues. Perhaps more important was his carpool companion on the short ride from the Dillingham airport to nearby Kanakanak Beach: Robin Samuelsen, the chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and a key figure in the fight against Pebble.

"I was sitting there talking with the president of the United States in Dillingham, Alaska, riding down my own street saying ‘this is unbelievable,'" Samuelsen told the Alaska Dispatch News. But despite the excitement, he stayed on message, talking to the president about the region's remarkable sockeye salmon run and bringing up Pebble, which the president said he could not discuss because of the ongoing litigation.

The president touring a traditional fish-drying rack. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

But during his salmon-handling beach visit, the president talked about Bristol Bay to the pool reporters nearby, and his remarks made it clear that he'd been listening (emphasis added):

THE PRESIDENT: Even though we’ve got a cloudy day, I think everybody has a sense of how beautiful this place is.  And the scale of fish that come through here is remarkable.  If you catch -- or if you've eaten wild salmon, it’s likely to have come from here.  And this has some of the biggest salmon runs, sockeye, in the world.  And it’s part of the reason why it’s so critical that we make sure that we protect this incredible natural resource, not just for the people whose livelihood depends on it, but for the entire country.  About 40 percent of the wild-caught seafood in America is caught right here on Bristol Bay. 

And it represents not just a critical way of life that has to be preserved, but it also represents one of the most important natural resources that the United States has.  This is one of the reasons why we have shut off oil and gas exploration in this region.  It is too fragile, and it is too important --

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Thank you.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  -- for us to be able to endanger it in any sort of way.  And this is something that obviously has strong support for the people whose livelihoods depend on it and for the people of Alaska. 

But there are other threats to this environment that we’ve always got to be alert to.  And hopefully by us coming here, we’re highlighting the need for us to keep this pristine and make sure that this is there for the children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren of all these wonderful fishermen.

The "other threats to this environment" line seemed like a clear reference to Pebble, and not everyone was happy. Some Pebble supporters who flew in from the village of Iliamna, near the potential mine site, held signs that said "For Pebble" and were disappointed not to be able to meet with the president. As Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership, told reporters in Dillingham, "Our view is that if the president is interested in the issue he should try to hear from all perspectives about it including those closest to Pebble who would like the jobs Pebble may provide."

In what remains of the Obama presidency, we'll certainly be hearing more about climate change and Alaskan Natives, and likely also about Pebble. Back in DC, the president continued his mix of positivity and purpose as he came down from the high of the trip. "I think that everybody who has a chance to come up here will marvel at the incredible natural beauty of the state of Alaska," he said in a post-trip video posted to Twitter, "but the reason we're here in particular is to describe in real concrete terms what's happening with climate change."

(This piece was republished on Medium.com)

Obama in Alaska: A Recap

President Obama's recently concluded visit to Alaska made some history--he was the first sitting President to venture north of the Arctic Circle, and certainly the first to hike a glacier with TV survivalist Bear Grylls. But it was his engagement with the place, its people, and Arctic issues that led to an overwhelmingly positive response from Alaskans. I wrote about the reactions for Outside.

The visit generated a ton of goodwill in a state that might not always be considered friendly to a liberal President. The reaction from Alaskans was positive verging on giddy. In a state where even the biggest city, Anchorage, can feel like a small town, and where most Presidents only ever stop over to refuel, it was the sheer momentousness of the occasion, the sense of history, that won most people over.

That, and the fact that Obama was so obviously enjoying himself, whether dancing with Native children or accidentally getting milted on by a ready-to-spawn pink salmon.

Read the piece here.

Final WTC BASE Jumper Sentenced

The last of the three WTC BASE jumpers, Marko Markovich, was sentenced today to 300 hours of community service for the jump, which took place nearly two years ago.

Judge Juan Merchan gave Markovich a stiffer sentence than his co-defendants--Brady got 250 hours and Rossig 200 hours--because, according to the NY Post, he felt Markovich was the least remorseful. "Of the three defendants," Justice Merchan said to Markovich's lawyer, "none have shown more contempt for the process than your client.”

For my background on the case, see my feature at Outside online here.