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Mardy Murie, Alaska's Passionate Protector

The 107th Congress adjourned last week without approving oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska -- but Republican leaders promise to make the drilling proposal a top priority come January, when the 108th Congress will convene with a GOP majority in both the House and Senate.

Conservationists promise strong resistance. But in the coming debates, they will be missing one of their most compelling and influential advocates: Mardy Murie, the woman whose research helped to create the ANWR, and who has fought for half a century to protect it. Now illness and age have all but silenced one of the nation's most prominent conservationists.

"After a century of adventure and activism, Mardy Murie is no longer well enough for interviews," says NPR's Howard Berkes of the 100-year-old naturalist. "Her words flow instead from books, films, audio archives and friends."

One of those friends is writer Terry Tempest Williams, who recalls watching Murie testify at a Congressional hearing 25 years ago on the fate of 100 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. "Mardy could be up against the most fierce politician who was anti-wilderness, and really touch their hearts with her love of Alaska," she tells Berkes.

One of the things Murie said at that hearing will no doubt echo in the coming debate on the future of ANWR: "Beauty is a resource in and of itself," she told the Congressional committee. "Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska. That is her greatest economy. I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by. Or so poor, she cannot afford to keep them."

Murie's life story is a testament to endurance, passion and a deep love of Alaska's wildest vistas. On her honeymoon, she and husband Olaus Murie (a scientist with the U.S. Biological Survey who later helped write and enact the Wilderness Act) traveled by steamship and then by dog sled through the Brooks Range, in winter. "The whole environment has steady serene beauty that sings, that will stay forever, that soaks into one’s being," she wrote.

As a couple, the Muries would explore some of the most remote areas of the Alaskan wilderness, defying snow, clouds of mosquitoes in the summer, wild animals and physical toil. Their journeys eventually led them to the Sheenjek River basin -- the area that would one day form the heart of the ANWR. A 1956 documentary film made about their expedition to the area reveals a vast, vibrant wilderness.

Soon after, Alaska became a state, and in 1960 the Sheenjek River basin was included in a presidential executive order. Olaus Murie died three years later, just before Congress passed the landmark Wilderness Act. Mardy Murie transitioned from supporting other activists to writing, speaking and lobbying on behalf of Alaska's wilderness herself. Decades of success followed, thanks in part to Murie's passionate, often emotional appeals and her deep knowledge of the territory.

Veteran environmentalist Brock Evans tells Berkes he wishes he could turn to Murie when Congress begins debate on the ANWR next year. "I’d bring her back here, in her wheelchair or whatever it would take," Evans says. "I think it would make a difference -- because she is who she is."

Murie now lives on a ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. "And when Mardy's gone, the ranch will become part of Grand Teton National Park," Berkes says. "With more protection, perhaps, than the arctic refuge the Muries explored and fought to preserve."

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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