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Midnight hour for Alaska’s coastal plain

The law locks up both man and woman
who steals the goose from off the common
but lets the greater felon loose
who steals the common from the goose.
-- Anonymous


In 1620, a common was the acre of green in a New England village. Villagers grazed their animals there or met for a revival. In 2001, a common is something we fight over. It is a battleground of values.

The latest and most fragile common in public dispute is the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska. The Porcupine caribou herd, 180,000 animals strong, arrives on the coastal plain every summer after a migration of over 400 miles from the Yukon Territory, through Alaska’s Brooks Range.

On the coastal plain, the living is easy for the caribou. Sea winds keep the mosquitoes away, and the tundra provides a salad bar. Here, crowded onto the narrowest strip of tundra in all of Arctic Alaska, tens of thousands of females give birth. Birthing would not be possible on such a scale anywhere else on their route, due to the difficulty of finding food, the torturous presence of insects and the threat of wolves and bears.

The coastal plain is also a den area for the polar bear, a magnificent marine mammal that is increasingly traumatized throughout the circumpolar north. Over 150 species of birds nest here. Year round, the tundra is home to musk oxen and other mammals. And now as the Prudhoe Bay and other North Slope oil supplies run low, the oil industry wishes to drill for oil underneath the coastal plain.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been called “America’s Serengeti.” Lobbyists for the oil industry despise that term for its emotional appeal and counter with their own broad strokes. Oil executive Harold Heinze called the coastal plain “a flat, crummy place,” and pro-development Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska describes it as a barren wasteland. Repeatedly it is called a frozen, treeless desert. Those in favor of oil drilling on the plain also describe it as a mere fraction of a refuge that stretches from the ocean to the Yukon River. “How much wilderness is enough?” lobbyists ask, dismissing the vital ecological function of this particular strip of land.

The debate has been ongoing for decades. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 enlarged the Arctic National Wildlife Range, renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and gave it wilderness status. The range had been established in 1960 following grassroots efforts of biologists and conservation-minded citizens, who succeeded in keeping this ecosystem intact and passing it on to the stewardship of the next generation.

One paragraph of the act, Section 1002, set the coastal plain apart from wilderness status, pending further studies of its oil deposits. The fate of the coastal plain now lies in the hands of the president and Congress. The oil industry anticipates considerable profits from drilling in the coastal plain, although estimates released by the U.S. Geological Survey range from 3.2 billion to 5.7 billion recoverable barrels. This would last U.S. consumers less than a year at present rates of consumption.

In a sense, then, the coastal plain might become our next “filling station,” as Rep. Ed Markey D-Mass., who is opposed to drilling, recently said. There is absolutely no evidence that the oil in the refuge will solve any problems, real or imaginary, for American consumers in anything but the short run.

In a burst of glee after George W. Bush’s election, the Alaska legislature approved $1.5 million toward lobbying in favor of drilling on the coastal plain. In March, Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski brought Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton to the North Slope of Alaska to “see for herself” what a tiny “footprint” the oil industry is likely to leave. On her weekend in Alaska, Norton was spared a close look. She “overflew” the refuge, a guest of the oil industry. She met representatives of the pro-drilling Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the profit-making corporation of the Inupiat people set up by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Norton was asked to imagine the future as her hosts demanded, and she complied. Like any politician, she doesn’t have time to study the data for herself. She requires interpretations. The line to which politicians like Norton are being asked to subscribe is that the oil industry can, in fact, coexist with healthy wildlife populations -- that just like backpackers, the industry can “take only pictures [or oil], and leave only footprints” of the most innocuous kind. Her comments since the trip suggest that she is convinced.

But there is another direction in which we might focus our imaginative power -- toward the particulars. Taking an honest inventory of the resources of the coastal plain can be a moral act. Think of a couplet by poet Mary Oliver: “She said, ‘The fox hunt is good for the fox.’/‘Which fox?’ I said.” How far apart the first speaker and the second are in their thinking: One abstracts the world to serve her interests; the other wonders about particulars.

Debbie Miller of Fairbanks, Alaska, is the author of Midnight Wilderness, a record of her many backpacking trips through the Arctic Refuge. She describes what happens when you look more closely at the “treeless wasteland.” What do you see? “A good arctic blow reminds me why tundra plant life is so dwarfed. Any plant daring to grow more than a few inches above the ground falls prey to the wind. The mountain avens, for example, is well designed for the strongest of blows. Its short stem is flexible, bending to the ground the way our fiberglass tent poles do. From the tent Robin and I watch hundreds of these dainty white flowers hammer at the tundra, their petals shivering against the ground.”

The title of Miller’s book has a double meaning. In the summer, midnight is filled with sunlight, perfect for observing wildlife. The title also suggests that it is the midnight hour for this wilderness.

It is also the midnight hour for the Gwich’in culture of northern Alaska and northern Canada. The Gwich’in Athabascans oppose drilling on the coastal plain. Inupiat people of Alaska’s North Slope have received enormous benefits from the oil development at Prudhoe Bay, and their profit-making corporation, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, is pro-drilling, although more cautious about offshore oil development that threatens the whale populations on which their traditions depend. The Gwich’in live on the migration route of the caribou, and their way of life connects them to the caribou as intimately and thoroughly as the plains Indians were connected to the buffalo.

In a Washington Post editorial in January of this year, two members of the Gwich’in Nation were blunt: “The Gwich’in people do not trust the promises that oil drilling in the refuge will not harm the Porcupine caribou. Indeed the U.S. Department of Interior estimates that the birthrate of the migrating caribou may fall by 40 percent if oil drilling begins. … Oil drilling in Alaska is fraught with perils and broken promises.”

The council of the Gwich’in community of Arctic Village, Alaska, has stated, “We, the Gwich’in Indian people of Arctic Village must never turn our backs on the land and animals given to us by God and left for us by our ancestors.”

Gwich’in people also live in the Yukon Territory of Canada. In the Porcupine Caribou Agreement of 1987, the United States and Canada pledged to protect the health of the herd and to maintain its habitat. Gail Norton has stated repeatedly that the concerns of local citizens should be considered in making decisions about development in wilderness areas. Will she acknowledge the Gwich’in Nation? Will she give an honest reception to their concerns?

Although the oil industry likes to point out that the Central caribou herd in the vicinity of Prudhoe Bay has not suffered from oil development, such comparisons are inappropriate, and the statement is untrue. The Central caribou herd is less than one-fifth the size of the Porcupine herd and is not migratory. Its females have far more area in which to give birth (on the calving grounds of the North Slope, density is five animals per square mile; on the coastal plain, it is 50), and calving has indeed been disrupted in the oil fields. According to a November letter to President Clinton signed by 225 zoologists and other scientists, “Research on the Central Arctic caribou herd at Prudhoe Bay indicates appreciable losses of preferred calving and summer habitats in response to petroleum development. … Oil spills, contaminated waste and other sources of pollution had measurable impacts on this environment.”

Today a tourist can visit museums in the West that show what the grasslands were like before they were disturbed with the plow. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is no museum: It is an intact ecosystem, a place of wonder fresh from the hands of the creator. It is a place to confront realities we no longer confront anywhere else. It thrills us with its size and abundance. But this plenty can vanish. It has vanished repeatedly in our history. The imagination would do well, in this case, to learn from the past.

In 1987, energy industry spokesman Jamie Linxweiler stated in a televised debate that the environmental record of the oil industry was unblemished in Alaska. Two years later the Exxon Valdez spilled at least 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The spill hit all Alaskans as a tragedy. Pride rushes back, however, at the first opportunity. The oil lobby assures us that now our technology can guarantee a happy outcome. One hears the sound of language in service to addiction. On a recent PBS “News Hour,” Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute labeled conservationists as “energy suppression groups,” a faintly evil-sounding phrase that polarizes the debate even more.

Wouldn’t it be wiser to improve the fuel-efficiency of our cars before we put our wilderness heritage at risk? In surviving the depression, our forbears endured experiences far more severe than “a pinch at the gas tank.” Anyone caught behind a line of motor homes in the summer (many of them towing cars) may even wonder if gasoline isn’t too cheap in this country. The future belongs to our children and their children. It would do them no harm were we to learn from the native people and reclaim our spiritual connection to the land itself.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole is a writer in Ester, Alaska, and a member of the Alaska Boreal Forest Council, an environmental education group.

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001