Harbor seals and their pups lie on icebergs below the South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm.
Dan Kirkwood speaks to passengers aboard a small vessel en route to Tracy Arm and a rendezvous with the Forest Service kayak rangers.
Dan Kirkwood stands on the deck of a vessel in Tracy Arm. South Sawyer Glacier looms in the background, and harbor seals and their pups can be seen on the icebergs.
Story last updated at 7/18/2012 - 5:24 pm
Human instinct is to explore, to see first-hand and experience pleasure. Southeast Alaska hosts a plethora of visual, physical and emotional opportunities that are cultural and scenic. And here lies the rub - how does the man-meet-nature relationship evolve in a manner that preserves nature and continues to satisfy man?
If you ask Dan Kirkwood, he may tell you that it depends on the man.
There's the seasoned introverted mountaineer that aspires to embark on solo trips without sighting a trace of another human. There are conservation groups whose missions are to protect, preserve and minimize the effect of human impacts in our forests. There are small boat operators that care deeply about both the wilderness through which they travel and sharing it with others. Some are passengers aboard large cruise ships who have never left the cornfields or concrete jungles that encompass their own familiar territory.
Kirkwood understands this conundrum, that the user groups of Southeast Alaska's wilderness are varied, and balancing their interests is critical and difficult. He worked for three seasons as a naturalist for a small boat operator, sharing historical and ecological information to passengers as they toured Tracy and Endicott Arms. He loved it; he was good at it. Kirkwood thinks he may have been satisfied staying on that path, and struggled with the decision to begin a master's degree, though last fall he started an interdisciplinary conservation program at the University of Maryland.
The first year of his studies focused on theoretical and philosophical issues surrounding the discipline of conservation.
"I was learning a lot of cool and interesting things, but wondering 'what's the point?'" When he explained his thought process, it appeared to be less disheartening and full of despair and more of a practical inquisitional period.
"I think conservation is stuck if we try and convince people to share our values," Kirkwood said. "Everyone has different values - it's what's so wonderful about the world."
This realization is the framework for his graduate program project.
"I've seen impacts; I've been a part of impacts," he said. Before returning to Juneau this summer to begin work on his project, Kirkwood wrote a letter of introduction to the community of tour operators in the Tracy Arm Fords Terror Wilderness area.
"I will be conducting a review of the [Wilderness Best Management Practices] with the Forest Service," he said. "My goal is to help make the WBMP easier to follow, more interactive and more rewarding for the community."
The WBMP has goals analogous with the more familiar Tourism Best Management Practices: to have a set of agreed upon standards of conduct and goals that are shared among those in the tourism industry. But the WBMP includes both tourism operators and those more affiliated with the "W" - that is conservation groups, individual recreaters and those representing management sectors. Additionally, the program focuses on the Tracy Arm Fords Terror Wilderness.
According to Kirkwood, the WBMP is the brainchild of John Neary, a Wilderness Manager for the United States Forest Service. Kirkwood described it as a "Voluntary participatory community agreement." A letter issued by the Forest Service dated April 2011 states, "The U.S. Forest Service has no jurisdiction on the marine waters traveled by any of the ships, thus a system of voluntary Wilderness Best Management Practices is being tested for efficacy. This places the agency in an unusual facilitative role with little authority for enforcement."
The point is that the land surrounding Tracy Arm is a designated wilderness area, the highest level of protection of lands that prohibits the use of mechanized transport. Wilderness is subjected to oversight by the federal government, but not the water it comes in direct contact with. And Tracy Arm is a popular destination for many user groups who travel via water; south Sawyer Glacier, the foot of which comprises the end of the Arm, is not only visually spectacular on its own, it's also a pupping ground for harbor seals.
The result of popularity is high traffic; the result of high traffic is an inevitable impact on the surrounding wilderness, but no entity can legally police the area. Enter WBMP.
"Problems are solved when everyone comes together and communicates perspectives," Kirkwood said. "You learn where other people are coming from, instead of relying on assumptions."
He explained that accomplishing collective agreements requires teasing apart the individual issues in order to untie the knots.
"When it comes to working together, you come together on specifics," Kirkwood said. "What are specific things we can do to get along? Conservation is stuck if we have a value debate. If I want to save the earth, what actions do I take? I think defining specific steps is really important."
The WBMP is comprised of four main components, said Kirkwood. The first is the issue of solitude.
"One of the things you should get in nature," he said.
The second is pervasive speaker announcements that emanate from loud speakers on some of the vessels. The third component is the presence of seals. Kirkwood said that it was agreed that vessels would maintain a minimum distance of 100 yards from the animals. The last issue is the focus of Kirkwood's graduate work: vessel emissions.
Kirkwood is working with the US Forest Service to address the presence of the emission haze and figure out how it's possible to reduce it, and the best way to do it. Though he is focusing on this one component of the WBMP, in order to hone in on the subject he's been working on a broader evaluation of the application of the four goals.
"When I came to this project I came with the idea that I don't want to force anyone out of Tracy Arm," Kirkwood said. "But it takes me back to [the] question that if we think there are actions that the Forest Service thinks will contribute the conservation of Tracy Arm, how can the Forest Service make those actions worthwhile? Is it by educating cruise ships about their impacts on kayakers, or appealing to their wilderness ethics?"
Kirkwood said his focus is to study how "The WBMP four agreements work, and to see what recommendations can be made to strengthen them. My goal is to make this easier, more interactive and more rewarding for all of its users. Instead of seeking regulations, or punishments, what the Forest Service and what I'm interested in, is an avenue that establishes obtainable objectives, and how that can make it worthwhile to the users."
Kirkwood explained that his research is in the preliminary stages. It's a complicated process. He started with his letter of introduction, and he's been meeting with vessel operators. In June he joined the group of four Forest Service kayak rangers for one of their regular nine-day trips paddling around Tracy Arm. The group was also joined by Neary. Kirkwood is also studying the Environmental Protection Agency's Method 9 Visible Emissions monitoring program that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation employs to monitor the emissions of cruise ships.
These efforts are ultimately to try and answer the most effective way of addressing the WBMP goals, and how to keep all user groups interested in obtaining them. "How do we make this worth your while? That's my day to day work," he said.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.