Book on Arctic refuge gets a chilly reaction

Last month, Subhankar Banerjee's book on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge got the kind of publicity money can't buy: an endorsement on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

But after U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., used the book to argue against oil and gas leasing in the refuge, the Bellevue photographer saw the Smithsonian Institution relocate an exhibit of his photographs and drastically trim the pictures' captions.

Meanwhile, the Office of the General Counsel has written The Mountaineers Books, Seattle-based publisher of "Seasons of Life and Land," asking it to remove from all future editions any references to the Smithsonian or a Smithsonian-sponsored traveling exhibit.

"It is perceived the book has been politicized," a disappointed Banerjee said yesterday.

Just who pushed for the changes and why is unclear. On Thursday, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., wrote Lawrence Small, the secretary of the Smithsonian, asking for an explanation but has yet to get a response.

As a cultural and artistic institution, the Smithsonian should make its own decisions about what to display and how, said Joe Shoemaker, Durbin's communications director. But he said debate over the refuge may have become so heated that one can't see its beauty without taking an implicit political position on its salvation.

Shoemaker worried that the Smithsonian might be bending to the tastes of the White House, which advocates opening the refuge to oil and gas drilling.

Neither the White House nor the Smithsonian could be reached for comment yesterday.

Proponents of drilling have described the refuge as a barren wasteland, "where in fact the images in this book would refute that quite eloquently," said Helen Cherullo, publisher of The Mountaineers Books.

She said Boxer held up the book on the Senate floor last month during debate on a provision to allow drilling in the refuge. The provision was defeated, 52-48.

The book, which was excerpted last month in The Seattle Times Sunday magazine, is the result of time Banerjee spent in the refuge. The cover features a red sticker that says, "Endangered! Why this land is connected to us all," and essays in the book have a clear pro-environment position.

Peter Matthiessen writes that it is "America's last great wilderness" and worries that it "may be fatally disrupted to no worthy purpose."

Two days after Boxer spoke, Cherullo said, captions for the exhibit were shortened and the venue was changed from the rotunda of the Natural History Museum to an exhibit hall that she and Durbin said is in the basement.

"The show certainly has a point of view," Cherullo said. "The context of the images certainly have a presence, an attitude, a conviction."

But the show falls short of explicitly taking a position on legislation, which the Smithsonian is clearly forbidden from doing, she said.

"I feel kind of disappointed," said Banerjee, "because the exhibit really has no political content in it. It just shows the beauty of the land."

Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253 or