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The Specter Haunting Alaska’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Specter Haunting Alaska from the November 17, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

From 1977 through 1980 I was Washington, D.C., counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives throughout Congress’s consideration of H.R. 39, the bill that in 1980 was enacted as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. From that vantage point I had a ringside seat from which to watch the dust-up that raged during those years over whether Congress should designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as a wilderness area or open the plain to oil leasing.

Insofar as the fate of the ANWR coastal plain is concerned, I was then, and today remain, an agnostic. But I do have one strongly held view. And that is how much the debate over the coastal plain would benefit from the invention of a Pinocchio serum. The fudging of the facts in Peter Canby’s “The Specter Haunting Alaska” [NYR, November 17, 2005] illustrates the malady that shooting up polemicists with a dose of the serum might cure.

Congress has divided Alaska’s North Slope into the 1.55-million-acre ANWR coastal plain, the 17.9-million-acre ANWR of which the coastal plain is a part, the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), and the remainder of the North Slope, some of which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, but most of which is owned by the state of Alaska and business corporations in which Inupiaq Eskimos own all the stock. Each of those land-use categories has its own political history. But whenever doing so advances his cause, which clearly is to persuade New York Review readers that wilderness is the correct policy choice for the ANWR coastal plain, Canby conflates the distinctions.

For example, Canby reports that admirers of the entire ANWR “have attributed to it quasi-religious qualities.” Although he does not identify those admirers, Canby immediately mentions Olaus Murie, a politically influential conservationist who in 1957 successfully lobbied Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton to agree to establish ANWR. But Canby does not mention that Murie never visited the North Slope, much less the ANWR coastal plain, or that in 1980 Congress designated all of ANWR (other than the coastal plain) as a wilderness area within which no development of any kind may occur. The ANWR wilderness area includes the Sheenjek River drainage on the south side of the Brooks Range, the only part of ANWR Murie ever visited.

Was Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who between 1956 and 1961 was a senior official at the Department of the Interior, “largely responsible for a swap by which [ANWR] would be preserved [i.e., established] and the oil companies would be able to develop a geologically promising section of the Barrow Arch, known as Prudhoe Bay”? No he wasn’t. In 1957, when Secretary Seaton announced that the Eisenhower administration would support the establishment of ANWR, Congress had not enacted the Alaska Statehood Act. By 1960, when Seaton signed the public land order that established ANWR, Alaska already had entered the union. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources did not select the land under which the Prudhoe Bay oil field is located until 1964, and then only because Alaska’s commissioner of natural resources had spent several years lobbying a very reluctant Alaska Governor Bill Egan to authorize the department to do so.

Having spent considerable time in the relevant archives, I know as much as anyone about the record of the events that culminated in the establishment of ANWR. I am not aware of so much as a snippet of that record which suggests that any participant in those events considered the establishment of ANWR a quid pro quo for granting a state that in 1957 did not, and might never, exist land-selection rights that seven years later it might, or might not, exercise at Prudhoe Bay. And in 1960 Governor Egan and Alaska Senators Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening angrily protested Seaton’s decision to establish ANWR; hardly behavior that suggests that Seaton had simply executed his part of a “swap” that had been agreed to in 1957.

Canby makes no mention of the fact that at the time ANWR was established it was understood that all of the land within its boundaries, including the coastal plain, would be open to oil leasing. At the press conference in 1957 at which he announced that the Eisenhower administration would support the establishment of ANWR, Secretary Seaton emphasized that “while this area will be closed to all forms of land entry which leads to appropriation of the title to the surface, it is our intention to permit the land to be opened to mineral leasing—oil, gas, potassium, sodium, phosphate, oil shale.” And the public land order Seaton signed in 1960 establishing ANWR implemented that policy decision by withdrawing all federal land within ANWR, including the land now denoted as the coastal plain, “from all forms of appropriation under the public land laws, including the mining but not the mineral leasing [i.e., oil leasing] laws.” That was the understanding vis-à-vis oil leasing inside all of ANWR until 1977 when President Jimmy Carter and the Alaska Coalition, the organization that environmental organizations created to lobby Congress to enact H.R. 39, repudiated it.

In sum, whether Congress should designate the ANWR coastal plain as a wilderness area or open the plain to oil leasing is an important question of national interest. Reasoning to the best answer to that question requires a difficult balancing of competing policy considerations. For reasons stated, Peter Canby has done NYR readers no service in assisting them to each reason to his or her own answer.

Donald Craig Mitchell

Anchorage, Alaska

Peter Canby replies:

Donald C. Mitchell is the author of a two-volume history of the relationship between the United States government and Alaska’s native population between 1867 and 1971. But when he accuses me of fudging facts he’s merely engaging in the old debater’s trick of attributing opinions that don’t exist and then indignantly knocking them down. I wrote that the naturalist Olaus Murie talked about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in “quasi-religious tones.” I never said he had visited the “entire” refuge—that is Mr. Mitchell’s word. But as Mitchell himself notes, Murie spent time in the Sheenjek River valley—two months, in fact, in 1957. The Sheenjek River valley is in ANWR. During the time he was in Sheenjek, Murie made the observation I cited. Mr. Mitchell himself is simply misleading in what he writes here.

Mr. Mitchell, claiming to know as much about the establishment of ANWR as anyone, also writes that I should be injected with truth serum to correct my assertion that Ted Stevens, now senior senator from Alaska but then chief counsel of the Interior Department, was “largely responsible” for a swap by which ANWR was established and the oil companies were able to develop Prudhoe Bay. But here’s something Mr. Mitchell may have missed. Stevens, in his capacity as lead counsel for the Interior Department, didn’t just write the public land order that Mitchell alludes to—Public Land Order 2214 that, in 1960, established ANWR. In doing so, he also revoked Public Land Order 82, which, during World War II and in the years following it, had put a military “hold” on development in much of Alaska’s north. Revoking Public Land Order 82 was quite deliberate and was the essential precondition by which the creation of ANWR gave the state legal access to the enormous oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.

Although he has never been a conservationist, Stevens considered the creation of a wildlife preserve in ANWR a small price to pay for access to Prudhoe Bay’s oil. ANWR was, at its creation in 1960, actually a wildlife “range,” whose status permitted oil drilling. But this status was not particularly contentious, since at the time no one took the idea of bringing North Slope oil to market seriously. The history of Stevens’s role in this transfer is briefly described in Jonathan Waterman’s book Where Mountains Are Nameless (Norton, 2005); but staff members in Senator Stevens’s office would, I suspect, be glad to refer Mitchell (as they did me) to the Congressional Record of August 18, 1994, in which Stevens is quoted in an Anchorage Daily News article describing the ANWR–Prudhoe Bay land-order exchange as “a very good deal.”

Mitchell claims that my not having mentioned that the original 1960 ANWR had been left open to oil drilling is part of my refusal to acknowledge the “difficult balancing of competing policy considerations” that go into “the important question of national interest” concerning whether to allow drilling in the ANWR coastal plain. In fact, what has created all the problems in ANWR is not that in its initial disposition drilling was permitted, but that after the enormous Prudhoe Bay oil fields were discovered in 1968, and after the $8 billion pipeline to Valdez was completed in 1977, the oil that is believed to underlie the 1002 section of ANWR suddenly became marketable. It was not until 1980—after the pipeline was built—that ANWR was doubled in size and all but the 1002 section of the coastal plain was made off-limits to drilling. The contentious issue of whether to permit or not to permit drilling in the 1002 section was then left to Congress—where it is still being debated today.

Mitchell professes to be an agnostic on the drilling issue but beneath all his huffing and puffing, he never says what is important to him so far as the future of the region is concerned. What seems important to me are the arguments I tried to make regarding the Bush administration’s energy policies and the ways in which they affect the North Slope. Until the President’s recent State of the Union speech, he had barely acknowledged the looming oil crisis (or for that matter global warming). Had the administration given more than lip service to developing alternate sources of energy, I would have taken that into account. If the amount of oil that the North Slope seemed likely to yield was actually large enough to put even a dent in our ravenous energy demands, then I might have agreed that the case for drilling needed to be taken more seriously. But, to date, the administration has not seriously tried to develop alternative energy sources and it has consistently exaggerated the significance of the likely North Slope yield.

I don’t think Mr. Mitchell has read my piece carefully enough to notice the urgency of the economic and scientific issues at stake. What concerns scientists is the increasingly worrisome data about the effects of our energy use on climate. The Arctic is bearing the worst of it. The sea is warming and rising. The ice cap is melting. In early November, at around the time my piece came out, the Journal of Climate published a study that estimated that temperatures in some parts of the Arctic could rise by twenty-five degrees by the end of this century. If this were to happen, the study noted, the tundra would all but vanish. Moreover, there is concern that the Beaufort Sea drilling will disperse the bowhead whale population that has sustained the North Slope Inupiat people for millennia. Mr. Mitchell, for all his talk of “competing policy considerations,” does not mention any of these dangers. I don’t think they can be ignored.

Readers have pointed out that I misspelled the first name of Gale Norton and confused Stewart Udall with his brother Morris. I regret these errors. I am also informed by Mr. Mitchell that the estimated number of caribou in the region is approximately 690,000, not the higher number I cited.

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