"In a way, I think, the long-term impacts of the Exxon oil spill with be just as psychologically as they are ecologically devastating."
That's the opinion of Barry Willis, a former Utahn who is now an administrator at the University of Alaska's Anchorage campus.As an outdoorsman, Willis is angry about the gigantic Exxon oil spill in Prince William Sound, where he used to kayak, fish and explore.
As the spill slides westward, he said, "it's already starting to affect Kenai Fjords National Park." In one day it swept through the Chiswell Islands in the Gulf of Alaska, hitting all 100 islands.
The Chiswell Islands are the nesting place of 70,000 birds, including puffin, auklets and other seabirds.
Willis said the spill is still spreading and is now threatening brown bears. "Last Friday the first brown bear was spotted across from Shelikos Straight. From the air they saw a brown bear that had just come out of hibernation, digging through the oil sand looking for razor clams. It had oil on it."
Because of the spill, an entire ecosystem is poisoned. Thousands of birds are dying, the sea otters are decimated, and oil is sinking into the gravelly beaches.
The disaster isn't limited to wildlife, as bad as that is. It threatens one of the country's greatest fisheries as well.
About half of Alaska's salmon spawn in Prince William Sound. "There are big fish hatcheries and just a huge native population of salmon," Willis said.
Hundreds of streams feed into the sound, many of them being salmon runs. "The young fry this time of the year are starting to enter the salt water where they feed in Prince William Sound for a few weeks before heading to open sea," he said.
"One of the big concerns is that virtually millions of salmon fry will be wiped out by this in the sound."
Kodiak is the country's top fishing town, in terms of dollars per year. Cordova, a town of 3,000, is the third-highest producer, he said. Herring alone bring in $12 million per season.
Petroleum in a few parts per million will either kill herring outright or deform the young fish.
Because it is a sound, like a gigantic bay dotted by hundreds of islands, it isn't flushed out as quickly as an ordinary coastal region would be. Tides wash through, but they don't clean it out.
This is the time of the return migration for geese, the worst possible period for an oil spill, when millions of birds fly back to Alaska - many of them heading first to Prince William Sound in the south.
Vast flocks are "just coming in for a landing, to rest and to grab a snack - and they're landing in the oil. It takes very, very little, just a few drops of oil, to remove the natural oil they use as repellent." Once that happens, they suffer from hypothermia.
But the geese flying over are poignant for another reason. It is that Alaska's abundant wildlife and untouched thousands of square miles are what drew many hardy souls like Willis there to begin with.
"They say that much of the oil will get washed off the rocks just by wave action. But they don't know whether that will happen in five years, 10 years or 100 years."
It seeps into the shoreline, gathers sand and sinks. It becomes little toxic balls that are now throughout the area, embedded in the shoreline. They expect these to show up for years and decades to come.
For people like Willis, who care about the natural environment, this is a discouraging experience.
"One of the reasons I moved up here is not just because of the pristine nature of the region but because of the mystique of Alaska."
Once he could go kayaking to any of hundreds of small islands in Prince William Sound, which has 3,600 miles of shoreline. "You can imagine you're the first person to set foot there . . . It's all fjords, all jutting in and out, hundreds of little protected bays."
A kayaker would see whales, deer, salmon, maybe bears, all of it in a pristine environment. "Up here it IS sort of like the West used to be."
"Ever since I was a kid living in Salt Lake, I was into mountain men," the organizations that recreate life in the 19th Century. Some of the mountain men groups go on wilderness trips with the clothing, weapons and cooking material of trappers who lived 150 years ago.
Every summer his old friends from Utah visit. "They don't come up just to see the wildlife or just to see the terrain," Willis said. "That's all part of it. But what they really come up for is the mystique and sort of the psychological things that Alaska does for you, because it is such an unspoiled area."
If the cleanup is successful - that is, all the sand down to 3 feet deep is cleaned up, all the oil sucked from the water, an otter-breeding factory replenishes the 5,000 otter that are dying, deer and eagles are reared and released, it still can't be the same.
"At best it would be a theme park, as opposed to what it was before. To me, that's the real sadness of this."