SciencePhoto Essay

For this family, keeping Alaska wild and pristine is a decades-long mission

"We cannot afford to lose any more wilderness, to any cause.” In a place of abundance, what it means to preserve and protect wilderness comes into focus.

Read Caption

A brown bear rests in the sedge grass of Hallo Bay, Alaska. Located in Katmai National Park, this wide, sandy bay at the base of Aleutian volcanoes attracts large numbers of brown bears, which gather every summer to graze on its protein-rich sedge grass.

The first brown bear appears as soon as we’ve set up camp. It emerges as if from thin air in the fields of sedge grass and lupine that sprawl at the base of the glaciers. Amber, lustrous, fat, the bear glances at me and my family, clustered with our tents, and saunters nonchalantly past. It’s here, on the Alaska Peninsula—the 500-mile arm of wilderness stretching between the Pacific Ocean and Bristol Bay—where I think most about the abundance inherent in a healthy landscape, and where I think most about what is currently at stake.

In the summers of their twenties, my parents built and ran one of Alaska’s first bear-viewing lodges on the peninsula’s Pacific coast. Every summer, when millions of salmon migrate upstream from the sea, brown bears gather along the region’s rivers in larger numbers than anywhere else on earth to fish and fatten up. For five years, at a remote cove called Chenik, my parents guided people to watch them. In a region once open to trophy hunting, they came to know more than 20 bears as individuals, working to establish the mutual tolerance and trust that can allow humans and bears to peacefully coexist.

View Images

Acacia Johnson's self-portrait (left) and her mother, Leslie Johnson (right), a former brown bear guide, in the lupine fields at Hallo Bay, on the Alaska Peninsula, where the family camped.

About 60 miles northwest of Chenik, a Canadian mining company is getting closer to reaching its 20-year quest to mine a copper and gold deposit on the north of the Alaska Peninsula, below a stretch of rolling tundra dotted with lakes and wetlands. If built, Pebble Mine would be the largest open-pit mine on the North American continent. In an earthquake-prone region, it would use earthen dams to store hundreds of millions of tons of toxic mine tailings—including selenium, mercury, arsenic, and sulfuric acid—in the headwaters of the region’s pristine watersheds, in perpetuity.

Proponents of the mine back it as a boost to the local economy, but according to a July poll, the majority of Alaskans feel that the environmental risks of the project are too numerous to lend their support. Under the Trump Administration, the mine’s permitting process had been fast-tracked, and although it’s currently delayed until the mine presents further plans for mitigating environmental harm, the process is in its final stages. If the mine tailings leached into the water table, the ecosystem would be poisoned, and the habitat of hundreds of species—including the world’s largest sockeye salmon population, over 190 species of birds, and a third of the brown bears remaining in the United States—could be irreversibly lost.

“In a place that is home to so many lasts, the last great salmon run, the last intact brown bear habitat, so much rides on the pristine nature of the ecosystem,” explains Drew Hamilton, a former staff member of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Putting a mine and a port, power plant, and workers in areas with these bear densities is a recipe for disaster.”

Learning from wilderness, passing it on

When my parents, Leslie and Kirk Johnson, arrived at Chenik in the 1980s, a shift had begun in the way people in Alaska thought about brown bears. Biologists had discovered that if human presence could be managed consistently over time—by limiting visitors to small guided groups, reading and respecting bears’ behavior, and never exposing bears to food—certain populations of bears could learn to live with a nonintrusive human presence. In such conditions, the bears would no longer be seen as a hunting commodity or a threat, but something to be appreciated in their wild state.

The concept of guided bear-viewing has flourished over time: Today, tens of thousands of people come to see Alaska’s bears each summer, and millions admire them from afar via live webcams. “The bears’ tolerance,” says my mother, “inspires honor and awe.”

My brother Devin and I were infants when our parents first brought us into bear country, and for us, an affinity for wilderness has always been intertwined with a sense of responsibility. In the 1990s, my parents worked tirelessly to include Chenik in the protected area around the nearby McNeil River Brown Bear Sanctuary. The lodge they helped to build was eventually burned to the ground during heated disputes between trophy hunters and bear-viewers, but the land is now protected—and the love I’ve inherited for bears fuels my own work as a photographer documenting the risks of the proposed Pebble Mine.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, my brother and I returned home this summer to live with our parents for the first time in our adult lives. Unexpectedly reunited as a family, we decided to reconnect with the landscape that had fostered our appreciation for bears: by returning to the region where my parents had learned the lessons of stewardship that they passed on to us.

The air taxi drops us off in a sprawling tidal grassland to the south of Chenik. As far as the eye can see, golden, flax, and copper-colored bears graze on sedge before a wall of glaciated volcanoes. Fields brim with lupine, silverweed, and geranium in every shade of purple and blue; songbirds trill and chirp in the trees. The animals ignore our presence completely, as if we’ve been there all along. And I consider how my brother and I—a wildlife biologist and a photographer—chose our professions, perhaps unconsciously, as acts of service to the places that have shaped us.

View Images

Devin Johnson (28), a PhD candidate in Wildlife Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, during the family camping trip.

I ask my brother what he thinks people get out of wilderness. “In a sense, we return to our natural state, with positive implications for our mental and physical health,” he says. “It reminds us that we’re just one of millions of species on this planet. It helps us reshape our priorities.”

I mull this over as we traverse the grasslands, wading through braided glacial rivers. I watch my mother and father read the behavior of the brown bears we encounter, advising us when to proceed and when to give the animals more space. I think about how even if the proposed mine’s earthen tailings dams were successful, its transport corridors would fracture the intact habitat that the region’s brown bears need to thrive. I think about the industrial port proposed only four miles from Chenik, and how if the bears learn to associate humans with food or danger, the delicate interspecies relationships my parents helped to cultivate would be lost.

My mother says conservation means making choices for preservation and toward sustainability. She says it means respecting the Earth so that it can continue to nurture us in return. As we wander, I am struck by a clear image of what this looks like. The rivers form the most productive salmon habitat on earth, supporting a $1.5 billion salmon fishery, 14,000 fishing jobs, and the ancestral homelands of more than 30 Indigenous tribes. People have lived alongside bears, sharing the same food resources, for thousands of years.

Recently, I came across psychology professor Peter Kahn’s concept of environmental generational amnesia: the idea that every generation accepts the landscape of their childhood to be normal, no matter how it has been ravaged by human industry. When I think of Pebble Mine, I recall my father’s caution about the delicate balance required to preserve the world’s few remaining gems. “We cannot afford to lose any more wilderness, to any cause,” he says. I think of what gets lost in assumptions about places as large as Alaska, assumptions that this wilderness will always be here. And I think that environmental stewardship is an ongoing task, that the stories we inherit are both a gift and a responsibility to pass on.

For now, we walk the swaying fields of wild iris, drink the cold, fresh water of the glaciers, camp in the blossoms and grass. A curious fox approaches within arm’s reach, meeting my gaze with shining amber eyes. And I resolve to keep dreaming and working toward conservation, when we can value places not for what we take from them, but for what they give us, freely, when they thrive.

Acacia Johnson is a photographer, artist, and writer from Alaska, focused on human relationships to wilderness.