Nineteen summers ago, my boots were on the ground in the remote Kongakut River watershed in the eastern Brooks Range of Alaska's famed North Slope.
Oil was the underlying reason I was in Alaska for six weeks. Actually it was an oil spill, the Exxon Valdez. On March 24, 1989, about 11 million gallons started spewing into Prince William Sound more than 800 miles to the south. The Slope was a battleground for more drilling. It still is.
When I think back on the experience, especially in light of the current frantic flap about drilling in the "barren" coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I am called to a surprise that nature had in store for me one afternoon on the Kongakut.
It was just a small, smooth, river-polished cobblestone, easily dismissed, one of millions. But a quarter of it was broken off in its helter-skelter tumble toward the sea and its damaged shape must have caught my eye while I was fly fishing for a grayling.
I knelt to examine it and was amazed to find, in the stone's river-hewn niche, a miniature world. Bits of sand and soil had accumulated and a tiny patch of colorful lichen, an alga-fungus complex, flourished.
Even here, in what seemingly would be a sterile rock and sand-filled river bar, the Arctic was displaying life in explosive profusion.
All around that July afternoon the carpets of wildflowers were so thick and luxuriant and diverse and brilliant as to dizzy the mind. The floral perfume was so thick it made you wish for a breeze lest you gag on the overpowering sweetness of dead-calm air.
Over the days and weeks on the Slope, guide Jim Campbell and I encountered barren ground grizzlies and moose in the isolated flats of dwarf willows and tag alders, caribou herds drifting around the coastal plain calving grounds, Dall sheep perched regally in the crags overlooking the valley floor where wolves cross-river daily outside the tents in the unending daylight.
These sexy "charismatic megafauna" are what everybody talks about and wants to see. But that little, smallest bit of life, the lichen in the broken rock, was a testimony to how life on the Slope and the Plain is all connected in a complex web that defies the understanding of a single human mind.
And the refuge's coastal plain - seen by some as featureless, treeless, worthless tundra - is the biological heart of the refuge, pumping out life which, in the case of many migratory birds, flows south across the continent.
Plants and animals there tread a frantic path, allowed just a few weeks to do what takes months, April to October, in more temperate latitudes to complete. Sprouting, growing, budding, pollinating, blooming, seeding, or mating, nesting, hatching, rearing. June is spring, July summer, August autumn.
Don't believe it's just about polar bears or caribou, the political poster children nowadays. Each strand of the web is connected to all others
Yes, the refuge is remote with a capital R. Getting there is problematic and expensive. Most of us will never have the chance to see it. I would go there again, before anywhere else in the world, given the chance.
That is because the refuge is a world, not just a national, natural treasure. It encompasses an entire functioning, intact ecosystem. There are few, if any, other intact ecosystems left on the face of this planet. Most everything else has been manhandled and tinkered with to death, or nearly so. The refuge is a testament to America's foresight and leadership in world conservation.
When you hear glowing descriptions of the small "footprint" of modern drilling technology - supposedly only 2,000 acres among the 1.5 million acres in the disputed coastal plain - envision a spiderweb on a big windowpane.
A spiderweb, if you simply tote up the area of its silk strands, may cover the barest fraction of a square inch though the web may span many square feet. So it will be with the spiderweb effect of haul roads, drilling pads, helipads, pipeline and service roads, sump pits, spill ponds, housing, machine shops, and more. The drilling spiderweb is not one little corner, not a mere 1/9600 or 0.000104 percent of the whole refuge, as 2,000 acres is out of 19.2 million. Its impact will have reach. It is not an insignificant postage stamp on an envelope the size of a football field.
And what of the pipeline? Well-made but now 31 years old, it is aging under the weight and flow of 15 billion barrels of highly corrosive crude oil. More leaks, more spills, more repairs, more maintenance, more damaged tundra can be expected. What then, as it inevitably wears out? Who will pay?
Where will the tons of gravel for the roads, pads, housing, and such come from? Will they come from the beds of nearby rivers and streams that are home to char, Dolly Varden, grayling, and other spectacular fish?
What about all the used-up or broken down construction or pipeline and drilling equipment? Left to rust? Too expensive to ship junk back south. Too many Arctic villages across the globe, including Alaska, already are on their ways to being junkyards. Where lies our responsibility for that unpaid social cost?
Why isn't Big Oil drilling the millions of acres in Arctic leases it already owns? We are 4 percent of the world's population, have just 3 percent of the proven oil reserves, yet use 25 percent of the world's oil. The numbers are so badly skewed that the political mantra about oil independence at our current consumption is a joke.
So, many questions remain either unanswered, ignored, or the replies are spun.
The solutions begin with forward-thinking national policy decisions. They are not new. Jimmy Carter, his other politics aside, correctly outlined them in 1977. And was essentially ignored. Non-oil solutions could work, given leaders with the will to think beyond the next election purse, with the will to tell us to swallow the bitter pill of our negligence and self-indulgence. For more than 30 years the only policy has been the big easy fix, business as usual, buy now pay later. Trouble is, now is "later."
Doing 55-60 mph in a 55 and 65 in a 65 has saved me at least 5 percent in fuel - not for one tank but many tanks for many months for thousands of miles. I kept track. And that was just a simple change in personal behavior that cost nothing, saved me money. Multiply that by millions of cars and drivers.
Conservation can help buy some time and always is prudent. It leaves something worthwhile for generations to come. Large-scale wind and solar, among others, are real, ready-now solutions, given the same kinds of incentives we dole to Big Oil, Big Farm, and others.
Such are the issues underlying the Arctic refuge dispute, much as oil underlies its coastal plain.
The Arctic refuge is home to 45 species of land and marine mammals, from the pigmy shrew to the bowhead whale; 36 species of fish, and 180 species of birds, from shorebirds to peregrine falcons and golden eagles, ducks, geese, swans and myriad more. Some of the birds fly over northwest Ohio and Lake Erie en route to their wintering grounds. And that's not counting the complex base of plants and insects and other life on which the wildlife stands. Visit on-line at arctic.fws.gov and see for yourself.
Don't believe a phonied-up set-piece photo of a bear or a caribou under the pipeline, implicitly portrayed as if it were nature's blessing that all will be well. Start demanding real answers to real questions.
Suppose you flew over Lake Erie on a cloudy, foggy day - like a planeload of politicians did recently on a "fact-finding" tour of the Arctic refuge. Suppose you looked down and didn't see any walleyes or even any eagles. Just like they did not see any polar bears or caribou or "bambi" on the arctic coast. Big surprise.
Would you then declare, bald-faced, that there aren't any fish or wildlife in Lake Erie and so it would be just fine to drill for oil and gas there? Of course not, because you know better. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ought to be the last place we drill for oil, not the next.
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