Conserving the Nature of America
Refuge Notebook Brings Natural Science to Life in Alaska

February 9, 2012


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Every week for 13 years, staff at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska have been giving science writing a good name.

Their vehicle: 800- to 1,000-word observations on refuge life and work that they take turns writing for a local daily newspaper. The result – the Kenai Refuge Notebook, each installment of which appears on the refuge website – is as distinctive as its followers on this south Alaska peninsula.

Subjects may be familiar (hunting or snow) or specialized (thermal imaging). But the perspectives are fresh, and the insights often surprising. Consider these accounts published over the last year:

Biologist John Morton’s account of three nunataks – exposed glacial ridges at risk of losing their uniqueness as wildlife oases as the climate warms. Entomologist Matt Bowser’s light piece about building a library of insect DNA codes to offer another measure of environmental change. (“The whole idea, ” he jokes, “is to work myself out of a job. ”) Graduate student Rebecca Zulueta’s observations of interactions between bears and humans. (One lesson from her survey of local attitudes on bears: “The fact that many Alaskans also have large, intimidating dogs definitely added unwanted excitement to my experience until I learned to bring along dog treats. ”) And game warden Chris Johnson’s musings about wily scofflaws (like the fisherman who hid a fresh-caught rainbow trout in his pants) and the wilier officers who catch them.

The weekly newspaper column was conceived by ecologist Ed Berg in 1999, who thought it would be a good refuge outreach tool. He spoke to Lori Evans, then editor at the Peninsula Clarion. They struck a deal.

“She gave me this advice, ” says Berg. “‘Think of it as a personal letter you’re writing to a friend you haven’t seen for some time. ”

The informal tone ­that resulted has become a hallmark of the column, Berg says. Column writers also tend to share a contagious enthusiasm for the Alaska landscape and a willingness to laugh at themselves. Take Morton’s aside about a recovered nunatak specimen: “We also collected one terrestrial mite (Erythraeus tonsus) which eventually made the front cover of the June 2010 issue of the International Journal of Acarology. I know that’s a lot of excitement to handle in one newspaper article, but you’ll be even more impressed to note that it was regarded as a ‘monstrosity, ’ a genetic anomaly which resulted in a 10-legged (rather than 8) mite. OK, this is even nerdier than guys in Antarctica who name their band Nunatak. ”

Will Morrow, the Clarion’s current editor, inherited the column from Evans in its first year, and he’s still a fan. “It’s generally very well written, ” he says, of the Notebook. “It’s such a diverse thing. Sometimes it’s a biologist or ecologist writing, sometimes one of the law enforcement folks, sometimes one of backcountry rangers, so there’s always something different in there. ”

When Berg retired in 2010, John Morton succeeded him as Notebook editor.

“I think it’s incredibly valuable, ” says Morton. “I’m trying to get everyone on staff to write. ”

Although the Notebook strives for a lighter tone, it provides serious information as well.

For example, two different speakers at a public hearing this year cited a Notebook piece to argue why the state of Alaska might want to consider moth control rather than wolf control to boost moose populations. (Shrub damage by moths means less forage for moose to eat in winter.)

By and large, says Morrow, “because of the way [the stories] are written, it’s hard to argue with them. They’re written from the science. ”

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