Yukon photographer plots U.S. media offensive to protect ANWR

'We're shooting for alternative publications, where people haven't heard about this issue. We're not talking to the converted,' said Peter Mather, who's organizing expeditions into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Peter Mather is enlisting groups of freelancers to join expeditions into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

'The caribou just hold something in your imagination,' said Peter Mather, who has photographed the Porcupine herd up close. Last year, U.S. lawmakers passed legislation to allow oil and gas exploration in parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), home of the Porcupine herd's calving grounds. (Peter Mather)

When U.S. lawmakers last month passed a tax reform bill, they included something that's long been on the wish list of many Alaskans — a provision to open parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.

That sort of backdoor approval bothered Peter Mather, an award-winning Yukon photographer who's documented the migration of the Porcupine caribou herd to its calving grounds in ANWR.

"People didn't really have a chance to debate this issue. It just doesn't fit into the news cycle, with all the crazy things going around. And so it kind of got snuck into this strange budget bill," Mather said.

"It deserved more debate."

Now, Mather is trying to organize a group of freelance journalists and storytellers to pay a visit to ANWR — and, ultimately, help sway public opinion in the U.S. enough to reverse the decision.

'We're not talking to the converted,' said Yukon photographer Peter Mather, about the Caribou Commons project. (submitted by Peter Mather)

"Our goal is to do eight expeditions this summer, and get 50 different storytellers — like writers, photographers, filmmakers — into the refuge and try to get that story, the stories they see in there, out to the general public in the U.S.," he said.

"The caribou just hold something in your imagination."

Goal to reach 20 million people

Mather hopes the Caribou Commons project will produce at least 100 stories, videos or exhibits, and reach 20 million people. He's not thinking about the major U.S. media or environmental groups, though. Rather, he's focused on smaller or niche publications, for example, Christian magazines.

"This is isn't one of their core issues, and we want to bring it to them because we think they're going to care about it, and help us out on this issue," he said.

"We're shooting for alternative publications, where people haven't heard about this issue. We're not talking to the converted."

A herd of caribou in the ANWR. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)

It's not easy or cheap to get to ANWR. Most visitors fly to Fairbanks and then hop on another plane north to reach the refuge, on Alaska's remote north slope. People who join Mather's excursions will have to pay their own way. 

Still, he's already been overwhelmed by the level of interest.

"We started out as four expeditions, and had room for maybe 25 people. And I've had to bring it up to eight expeditions," he said. "I've had to turn away about 20 storytellers because I just can't get everybody out there."

Mather says it's all about recognizing and publicizing the importance of protected areas for caribou. He refers to the "caribou people" who live in the North and rely on the Porcupine herd. 

Even though debate over drilling in ANWR goes back decades, Mather believes there are still too few Americans who understand what's at stake.  

"I think there's lots of people telling this story in Canada. We're trying to do something a little different, and reach a different audience."

With files from Sandi Coleman


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.