War Over Arctic Oil


    Beyond these mountains lies the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, a magnificent battleground

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    The Inupiat believe oil revenues and land-rental fees from oil companies will raise their living standards. "My concern is for our benefits," says Isaac Akootchook, 78, a Presbyterian preacher and former whale hunter. "Oil is really important for our young people, for education and health care." Akootchook is worried, however, that once established in the refuge, the oil companies might move offshore to drill--and that he would oppose, because it could interfere with the bowhead whales the Inupiat hunt when the sea melts in the summer.

    Akootchook's daughter Susie also supports drilling but is concerned about the social impact of oil money--especially the availability of alcohol. Kaktovik, like many of the native villages in northern Alaska, bans alcohol by law. "We are trying to keep alcohol out, but already it is sneaking in," she says. "We have real nice people here before alcohol, but it really destroys families."

    If the social impact of drilling is unpredictable, so too are its effects on wildlife. Wildlife-management experts are concerned the winter activities of oil companies could disrupt the denning of pregnant female polar bears along the shoreline. Musk oxen could be driven from their riverside habitats, where oil companies come to find gravel and freshwater. And grizzly bears, which come out on the plain in summer, will likely again prove they are incompatible with oil camps. In the Prudhoe area, grizzlies were often relocated and sometimes shot when they became too intrusive.

    Most important of all are the more than 130,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd, which migrates each spring onto the coastal plain to calve. These caribou are at the heart of the environmentalists' case against drilling. In late May, the animals arrive on the plain after traveling 400 miles around the mountains, to give birth far from their predators: the eagles, wolves and grizzlies that live principally in the mountains. After calving, they forage on the rich greenery that springs up in the 24-hour sunshine. As new snow approaches, they return to the forests on the south slopes 400 miles away, where they find shelter and feed off lichen growing on trees. If drilling begins in the refuge, environmentalists fear, the migration will be disrupted.

    "Caribou will move away from oil fields as disturbance increases," says David Klein, professor emeritus at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. In the Prudhoe oil field, he says, the 25,000-head Central Arctic herd of caribou was displaced from oil developments. "The pipeline and [nearby] haul road have essentially fractured the Central Arctic herd into two groups," Klein says.

    It is impossible to know how the Porcupine herd will be affected by oil drilling. But Evon Peter and the other members of the Gwich'in tribe fear the worst. Peter lives in Arctic Village, pop. 130, on the southern slopes of the Brooks Range. The caribou come through his area every fall, and the Gwich'in hunt them to feed the whole village. "The caribou for us are like the buffalo were to the Indians of the Lower 48," says Peter. The Gwich'in are worried drilling will drive the caribou away into Canada forever. "Our struggle," says Peter, "is spiritual--about dignity, respect and the ways people relate to each other."

    Dignity and respect are in a battle against money. Alaska residents pay no income tax or sales tax and get an annual dividend from the state's oil earnings--last year it was roughly $2,000 for every man, woman and child. Not surprisingly, drilling in ANWR is widely supported, and Bush's election was met with glee. But many Alaskans have no illusion that the decision to drill, if it comes, will be part of a coherent energy policy.

    "What it is going to come down to is a couple of hundred guys in D.C. pushing the panic button, because that's the way it always happens," says Kaktovik mayor Lon Sonsalla, who supports drilling but is unhappy at how little the local communities have been consulted on the issue.

    Very few of the people in Washington with their finger on the panic button have ever seen the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Murkowski is planning to lead a Senate delegation here when the weather warms up.) For those who do travel to Alaska's far north, the experience stretches the imagination. To visit a new drilling station in Prudhoe, one that extends only a few acres on the surface but can access 75 square miles underground, or fly over a convoy of trucks spraying water on the tundra to form ice roads strong enough to bear the weight of mobile drilling rigs is to be in awe of our industrial prowess. But to walk at sunset over the tundra of the refuge--where there is silence, an eternity of chill whiteness, a lone raven high overhead and the tracks of an Arctic fox leading toward snowcapped mountains under a pale sky of aquamarine and violet--is to be in awe of something far greater. America now faces the momentous decision of what to do with all this whiteness.

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