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Inside the Endangered Arctic Refuge


Wild northern Alaska is one of the last places on earth where a human being can kneel down and drink from a wild stream without being measurably more poisoned or polluted than before; its heart and essence is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in the remote northeast corner of the state, the earth’s last sanctuary of the great Ice Age fauna that includes all three North American bears, gray wolves and wolverines, musk ox, moose, and, in the summer, the Porcupine River herd of caribou, 120,000 strong. Everywhere fly sandhill cranes and seabirds, myriad waterfowl and shorebirds, eagles, hawks, owls, shrikes and larks and longspurs, as well as a sprinkling of far-flung birds that migrate to the Arctic slope to breed and nest from every continent on earth. Yet we Americans, its caretakers, are still debating whether or not to destroy this precious place by turning it over to the oil industry for development.

A wildlife sanctuary in northeast Alaska had already been established when, in 1968, an oil-bearing geological formation called the Barrow Arch with exceptionally promising strata was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, an obscure location on the Beaufort Sea on Alaska’s north coast. In 1977, with the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), the first oil flowed from Prudhoe over the mountains of the Brooks Range to Port Valdez, eight hundred miles to the south.

Three years later, in 1980, Congress more than doubled the size of the sanctuary with the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in a huge wilderness directly east of the pipeline.1 Most of the 19.6 million acres permanently set aside for wildlife protection were steep rocky mountains uninhabitable by large creatures other than the white Dall mountain sheep. The one great wildlife region inside the refuge was the flat coastal plain between the Brooks Range foothills and the Beaufort Sea.

Even so, the refuge legislation might not have passed without concessions to Big Oil’s lobbyists and aides, deeply embedded in Congress and the White House. The most significant concession was Section 1002 of the enabling legislation, which provided for later assessment of fossil fuel potential in the 1.5-million-acre region of the refuge’s coastal plain nearest to Prudhoe, followed by a congressional decision on whether oil leasing and drilling would be approved there. Thus when one speaks of the ANWR dispute, one is implicitly referring to the 1002—or “Ten-Oh-Two”—as the contested area, somehow diminished by a numbered designation, is widely known today. How sad that this land, so vital to the native Gwich’in and Inupiat peoples, should be the center of what has become the longest and most acrimonious environmental fight in American history.

On March 16 of this year, as it has attempted to do many times since 1980, the US Senate authorized energy companies to drill in the Wildlife Refuge; since then, the House has passed similar legislation. During the August recess, Republican leaders across the country claimed to voters that exploiting the refuge will solve the problem of the nation’s dependence on imported oil and reduce the high price of fuel. Should the two chambers reconcile their differences in this congressional session, our rarest and most precious wilderness may be lost for good. Despite all the oil industry’s talk about “safe drilling” with environmental safeguards (less than credible at a time when, at corporate behest, a primitively pro-business administration is dismantling many decades’ worth of hard-won protections), mining fossil fuels from a fragile, treeless plain will permanently deface, contaminate, and gut it, while accomplishing almost nothing to offset the so-called oil crisis.

Even if Congress should succeed today in bestowing the refuge on the corporations, the first leases could not be issued before 2008, after seismic exploration, test wells, permits, and the truncated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required for the lease sale are completed.2 Next would come seven more years of construction of hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines and hundreds of acres of infrastructure, from flow stations to cesspools—all this to be done during eight or nine dark months of ice and blizzard, followed by a brief summer season when roads and installations sink and shift in the endless swamps of water-logged tundra.

Not before 2015 could the oil extracted from the Wildlife Refuge affect energy supplies, and even then it would represent an inconsequential fraction of our gluttonous US consumption. (A Department of Energy report of September 2005 predicted that ANWR oil production, peaking in 2025, would slash the gas price at the pump by no more than one penny per gallon.3 ) As most of our legislators know well, to flog this questionable source as a solution to our wasteful habits is not only dishonest but a long-term disservice to the nation.4

Tragically for the native tribes, the 1002 area of the refuge is also the ancient calving grounds of the Porcupine River caribou, whose astonishing, meandering annual migration of 2,500 to 3,000 miles is the longest of any terrestrial mammal on the planet. Attended by furred predators, these big-racked deer from the boreal forests of eastern Alaska and northwest Canada traverse steep mountains and ford icy torrents to reach the disputed coastal plain, which in summer is white-specked with the rich cotton grass that invigorates the milk of the spent cows and the blood of the new calves. Few wolves and grizzlies trail the herds as far north as the coast, where biting insects are discouraged by the cold winds off the ice.

To the Gwich’in Indians south of the mountains, this calving ground is known as Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit—roughly, “the sacred place where life begins”—the life, that is, of Caribou, which is not understood as something apart from the life of Gwich’in, the People. According to their own traditions, these indigenous Athabaskan Indians have hunted caribou in the northern forests for perhaps ten thousand years: the myth, culture, economy, and future of the fifteen Gwich’in villages depend on this big deer as the Plains tribes once depended on the bison. In their creation story, told to me by elder Trimble Gilbert when we met in his village on the reservation in 2002, Caribou holds a piece of Man’s heart in its heart, and Man a piece of Caribou, so that each will know what the other one is up to.

That year I accompanied a river expedition through the refuge, from the Brooks Range northward to the Beaufort Sea. Dropped off by bush plane at Caribou Pass, where the Kongakut River rushes forth from dark portals of the mountains, we made our first camp at the river’s edge, under grassy slopes still bearing signs of the passage of the herd that had forded the river a few weeks before, in early June. We caught big silver arctic char for our broiled supper and watched a cream-colored grizzly descend the grassy slope behind the camp, drawn by the smell—the first of five grizzlies observed in endless days of midnight sun, as we drifted downriver among the hills and out across the plain, slipping through rapids and along white cliffs, rounding broad silver gravel bars and hoary banks of the melting permafrost that lies just beneath the meadows of the tundra.

Seen across the long coastal lagoon from our final camp on Icy Reef, where small icebergs nudged the outer beach, the Brooks Range ramparts rose to snow peaks at nine thousand feet, walling away the din of the world’s progress. This southward prospect was more magnificent than any Alaskan landscape I had ever seen—the mysterious dark mountains, the sun-filled flowered plain where ancient beasts drifted through strange golden mists, the sprinkle of bird voices in the silent distance. In the variety and abundance of its creatures, no comparable arctic wilderness is left.

In July, when the cow-calf herd has scattered and the bulls arrive, the plain becomes a hunting ground for the Inupiat Eskimo people at Kaktovik, the whaling village on Barter Island just off the wildlife refuge coast. The Inupiat hunter and carver Robert Thompson told me that his people camped and hunted on this land for a thousand years before white men discovered it, yet they have no name for the Gwich’ins’ “sacred place”: it is sacred, yes, and also “it’s just home. To us, it’s home.” But home, the way Robert Thompson uses it, is all-encompassing.

Picked up by bush plane on Icy Reef a few days later, Thompson and I flew to Kaktovik for a look at the improvements brought by the oil economy. In 1979, in return for withdrawing their objections to drilling in the Wildlife Refuge, the North Slope Inupiat communities had received large subsidies to raise their health and education standards and to be freed from poverty. His people’s culture, Thompson explained a bit defensively, was much more dependent on the bowhead whale and seals and polar bears than on the caribou directly threatened by the drilling, and like their neighbors, Robert and Jane Thompson appreciated the benefits of a decent clinic and good school. But what will happen, they asked, “when the oil runs out and the land is ruined and the people have forgotten how to live in our old way?” The Thompsons were two of the few people in Kaktovik who still spoke out publicly against energy development in the refuge.5

In 2003, the US government leased for drilling ten million acres off the coast from Point Barrow east almost to Canada, a distance of some four hundred miles that included a hundred miles of refuge coastline. While most people in Kaktovik had accepted energy development in the 1002 section, they had always been united against offshore drilling, for fear it might disrupt the migration patterns of the bowhead whale. In 2006, however, sixty-eight out of 188 villagers have come out publicly against development on land as opposed to the five people, not counting Thompson’s wife, who were on his side when I visited Kaktovik just four years ago. In a phone call on August 13, Robert told me that through a new indigenous activist organization called “Red Oil,” the Inupiat were making common cause with Indian communities all over Alaska in a desperate struggle against the disruption of habitat and the disappearance of sacred animals such as polar bears and seals, dangerous chemical contamination of their wild fish and game, and the fatal damage to their culture and their future that is already on the wind with the retreat of polar ice and the onset of global warming. Most biologists agree that the polar bear is doomed to vanish entirely in this century.


This summer, Thomas Campion, a self-made Seattle businessman and brash champion of the refuge, was kind enough to include me on a second Arctic expedition, this time to the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska (NPR-A), the huge 23.5-million-acre area west of the Wildlife Refuge, set aside for oil drilling in the 1920s but left untouched for decades. Oil leasing started under the Clinton administration, and hundreds of leases for oil and natural gas development will soon be offered by the Bush administration. This summer, the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Interior Department, put up for sale an additional 696 leases on over eight million acres within the reserve, although some of the leases, covering a fragile wetland area, have been challenged in court by environmental lawsuits. On September 7, the US District Court in Anchorage issued a preliminary ruling that the bureau had not properly considered the environmental impact of oil and gas development in 12 million acres in the northern part of the reserve, and temporarily blocked the sale of 600,000 acres of wetlands around the Teshekpuk Lake area in the reserve’s northeast corner. Doubtless, the ruling will be fought vigorously by the White House.

  1. 1

    Part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), known as the Alaska Lands Act.

  2. 2

    These EIS’s pay no attention to social and cultural disruptions of the native peoples.

  3. 3

    The US Geological Service estimate of the total oil that could be profitably extracted from the region amounts to 7.7 billion barrels, less than what is consumed by the American market in a single year. (Six months is the usual estimate.)

  4. 4

    For background history and information on the refuge, and especially the critical 1002 area under dispute, see my essay in Subhankar Banerjee, Seasons of Life and Land: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge(Mountaineers Press, 2003).

  5. 5

    In a series of eloquent letters this past year to the Arctic Sounder, the newspaper of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, Robert Thompson wrote, “I find it appalling that oil company executives have more say in what happens to our whaling areas than 10,000 Inupiat.”

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