Most of us will never see the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So why shouldn't we drill for oil there? Susan McGrath travels to "the biological heart of the refuge" to unlock the mystery of its astonishing fecundity, and its importance to caribou, polar bears, and millions of migrating birds.
By Susan McGrath
The Arctic sun lies low in the west, slanting shadows long across the gravel bars. The Aichilik River meanders around us in a dozen shallow channels. From here, the serried mountains and foothills of the Brooks Range fan out across the horizon. Dave paces off Andy's shadow and mine at a lope. "Sixty feet long!" he calls back, exultant.
The three of us are on a midnight ramble, coursing the chilly tundra like 10-year-olds allowed to stay out past bedtime on a summer night, exhilarated by the midnight sun. We flush a willow ptarmigan. It is still in winter white, though it's almost two days past the solstice and the snow is gone from the flat places. "Male," notes Andy. "The female will already be in summer plumage, on the nest. He takes the heat, distracts the predators." We search for the female in the leafless willows at our feet. But if she's here, her camouflage defeats us. Abandoning the search, Dave bounds up the fluted snowbank; Andy and I crest the rise in time to see him belly flop onto the cottongrass tussocks, and we instinctively follow suit. There, approaching fast across the tundra, are three caribou cows and two small calves. We hold our breath.
These are caribou of the Porcupine herd, a migratory population of 129,000 named for a tributary of the Yukon River. The herd winters along the river on the south slope of the Brooks Range, and east into Canada. Come spring, the animals migrate across the passes, then north and west onto the coastal plain. For four to seven weeks the cows fatten their calves here, finding a rare combination of high-quality vegetation and relatively few predators. They fatten despite the fact that they also encounter mosquitoes and parasites by the maddening trillions. The insects goad the animals into tight herds, tens of thousands thick, forming the rivers of caribou that have inspired the name "America's Serengeti." It is a deft bit of environmental marketing, but apt.
This year spring is cold and late. There's not a mosquito or warble fly in sight, and the caribou are dribbling onto the tundra in modest pulses. Even so, there is something about them--the purposefulness of the adults, the sturdiness and vigor of the little ones--that is intensely affecting.
The animals trot past us and descend to the river gravel. Halfway across the strand, an arctic tern launches an aerial attack. The terns lay their eggs in the gravel, and the caribou have strayed too near a nest. As we watch, wincing, the bird dive-bombs the lead cow in a merciless series of strikes. The caribou buck and wheel, running 25 yards upstream before plunging into the channel and crossing the river to the tundra on the other side.
Animals know no political boundaries, of course, and one side of the river looks much like the other. But in crossing the Aichilik, the caribou have moved onto what is possibly the most hotly and long-contested piece of real estate in America: the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
For the past three decades, pro-development groups and Alaska's powerful congressional delegation have pushed hard to open the plain to oil exploration. Environmentalists, including groups such as the Audubon Society, have pushed back. In 1989 Congress seemed close to approving drilling when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. The bill was quietly shelved.
Today President George W. Bush, backed by many members of Congress, has made drilling in the refuge a centerpiece of his energy plan. On August 1 the House of Representatives approved a bill based on that plan; it calls for oil and gas drilling in the coastal plain. The Senate will begin work on its energy package this fall. Though drilling faces much more opposition in that chamber, Perry Plumart, Audubon's director of government relations, says, "The Senate is the last bastion. If for whatever reason it passes the Senate, then there's drilling in the refuge." Lois J. Schiffer, Audubon's senior vice-president for public policy, called the House vote "a catastrophe for the environment" and urged the Senate to counter it. But Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton had already indicated the administration would not back down, telling the Associated Press in June, "This is an issue that has been debated for the last quarter-century. I imagine we will continue to talk about it no matter what Congress does or doesn't do this year."
Bob Marshall started it. A radical thinker who worked for the U.S. Forest Service in the 1920s and went on to cofound the Wilderness Society, he wrote, "In the name of a balanced use of American resources, let's keep Alaska largely a wilderness!" His ideas, even more inflammatory then than now, inspired the early visionaries of the Alaska environmental movement. Calling northeast Alaska "The Last Great Wilderness," they articulated a philosophy in which wilderness was valued not just by scientific measures but for its aesthetic, even spiritual, worth. Roger Kaye, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and unofficial historian for the refuge, credits their work with helping make northeast Alaska "a symbolic landscape of national significance."
In 1960 that work culminated in President Eisenhower's protecting 8.9 million acres of the Brooks Range as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Twenty years later the state, the federal government, and native Alaskans negotiated a giant land shuffle to clarify ownership and to set aside protected lands. The result was the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, under which the area was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and expanded to 19.5 million acres--bigger than South Carolina.
The refuge is unique, according to John Schoen, senior scientist with Audubon Alaska, for its geographical compression and the diversity of its ecoregions. "Here in the northeast corner of Alaska," he says, "you can travel 250 miles and cross all the ecoregions of the Arctic--boreal forest, forest tundra, mountains, arctic tundra, and coastal marine." In the book Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, Schoen wrote of an "immense country with large carnivores and their prey interacting as they have for millennia." The refuge, he pointed out, "represents a complete and functional ecosystem on a vast scale, unusual even for Alaska, and largely lost from the rest of the country."
Much of the refuge's mountain terrain--most of the original 8.9 million acres--was officially designated a wilderness area, a status conferring the most stringent protection. But protecting the refuge's coastal plain, a narrow band 15 to 40 miles wide, has been another matter entirely.
In 1968 the largest pool of oil ever found in North America was discovered under the broad coastal plain west of the refuge, at Prudhoe Bay. Since then oil companies have pumped more than 13 billion barrels of oil from that area, sending it south through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to ships at Valdez. Evidence suggested the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain might contain reservoirs of oil, too. (Current estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey range from 4.25 billion to 11.8 billion barrels, a 6- to 20-month supply for the United States.) In a compromise move, Section 1002 of ANILCA placed the coastal plain in a special category for further review of both oil and wildlife "values." The fragile band of tundra has been known by the unlovely name of "the ten-oh-two" ever since.
"The moment Bush was confirmed, my phone started ringing off the hook with folks saying, ‘Sign me up, I want to see the place before it's gone,'" Dave van den Berg told me. His company, Arctic Wild, guides trips into the refuge. I called him late. He had just one opening left--in June, the best month for seeing masses of caribou. The trip he offered would combine a leisurely paddle down the Aichilik, a typical braided Arctic river that delineates the eastern border of the 1002, with a few other stops, including a day trip to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.
Four months later, bundled into as many layers of petroleum-derived synthetic long underwear as a person could reasonably function in, 10 of us--guide Jennifer van den Berg, 8 other guests, and I--were delivered in shifts by bush plane to a barely perceptible landing strip in the treeless foothills of the North Slope. There we met guide Andy Elsberg and a lean and grizzled Dave, hot off a previous trip. We sorted ourselves into three rafts and set off placidly downstream. It was already late in the day, but night wouldn't fall for six weeks. We would gradually drift into what Dave calls "Arctic time": Dinner at midnight. Hiking at 2 a.m. Even a little paddling between 1 a.m. and 4. We would be picked up again by bush plane eight days and 45 miles later on a barrier island in the Beaufort Sea. Eight Arctic days: 192 hours of sunlight on a vast and spacious land.
So spacious as to be almost overwhelming, I soon discovered. Latitude has stripped the tundra bare of trees, leaving only a waterlogged mantle of moss, sedge, and diminutive wildflowers, none much more than four inches high. The low vegetation and perennial daylight give the visitor an excellent chance of actually seeing North America's largest mammals at work and play--moose, wolf, musk ox, caribou, and all three species of the continent's bears: black, brown (also called grizzly), and polar.
We floated just a mile downriver before setting up camp that first night. Twenty minutes on, a grizzly slouched past us with a nearsighted air. The bear's tawny coat so precisely matched the still-brown vegetation that you could almost imagine it greening up as summer advanced and breaking out in patches of pink and yellow. When a metallic clink betrayed our presence, the bear gave a startled shake and padded rapidly away, casting sidelong glances both curious and shy. Not an hour later, two bull moose sauntered out from the same direction. They, too, started, then glided away at a leggy trot.
In the morning we saw our first caribou, an intermittent rivulet of cream and tan moving steadily north and west. Caribou are not the most elegant of deer. Their antlers are gawky, their snowshoe hooves reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. At this time of year they are shedding their winter coats in great clumps of hair, which gives them a shabby, moth-eaten look. What they lack in grace, though, they make up in stature, principally because of their large numbers. Their feces fertilize the soil, and they themselves are an important food source for predators.
The caribou are a month late in arriving on the coastal plain this year, delayed by deeper-than-average snow along the migration route. Last year's migration was late, too, with disastrous results. Some cows gave birth en route to the calving grounds. "Calves that usually get a free ride in mama's belly all the way to the coastal plain were having to struggle through snow and swim swollen torrents," says Fran Mauer, an Arctic Refuge biologist. "You'd see these wobbly little calves trying to keep up with their mothers, who were trying to keep up with the herd." Many calves drowned crossing the streams. Others were left behind by their mothers, the migratory urge even more powerful than the maternal. Experts estimate that almost half of the year's crop, some 15,000 calves, died in the first month of last year's calving season. So far this year, they have fared slightly better.
The effect of drilling on the long-term health of the Porcupine herd is of major concern to wildlife biologists. The central-Arctic herd at Prudhoe Bay has grown fivefold since that area was developed for oil, much to the delight of the oil industry. But biologists such as Mauer say the boom is misleading: Caribou numbers were low when development began, perhaps because of years of severe weather. A closer study of that herd by state biologists during the 1980s and 1990s showed that the concentration of calving shifted away from industrial sites to alternative calving grounds with less forage.
The Porcupine herd, here in the refuge, is almost five times bigger, but it calves in the same amount of acreage. Oil development could push animals to calve closer to the mountains, where there is poorer forage and a higher density of predators such as grizzly bears, wolves, and eagles. "This herd definitely seems less resilient," concludes Mauer.
Caribou aren't the only vulnerable animals on the tundra. The coastal plain is the most important terrestrial denning ground for polar bears along the entire 500-mile coast of the Beaufort Sea. Scientists worry that industrial activity will prompt mother bears to abandon their dens early, endangering their cubs. Some 250 musk oxen also live on the plain year-round, conserving energy in the harsh weather by moving very little. Disturb them and they stampede, wasting critical reserves. And other animals? A paper in the April issue of the journal Conservation Biology reviewed the scientific literature: In five decades of wildlife studies in the refuge, 44 percent focused on caribou, 16 percent on musk oxen, and 14 percent on polar bears. Of the other species that make this vast ecosystem their home, little is known.
Those first days of the trip, I was too enraptured by the big mammals and the big sky to admire the ground underfoot. Eventually, my gaze lowered. Centuries of freeze and thaw atop the permafrost have created arrangements of soil, silt, pebble, and stone that geologists call patterned ground. E.C. Pielou's A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic lists almost as many names for tundra formations as Eskimos are said to have for snow: polygons, pingos, string bogs, frost boils, flarks, thermokarst, thaw slumps, sorted circles, stone stripes, palsas, and peat mounds.
Paddylike polygons fracture the flat ground for miles on either side of the river. These are an exaggerated version of the polygonal cracks you see in the mud of a dried puddle, cloaked in sedges and moss. A single polygon might measure anywhere from 5 to 50 yards in diameter. From the air, they cover the tundra in a green-brown mosaic.
The plushness of the low vegetation is deceiving. These are among the harshest conditions on earth for plants. Extreme cold, a short growing season, frost heaves, ferocious winds, drought conditions, a shallow root zone over the permafrost, and infertile soil conspire against plant life. Most years, plants are unable to set seeds, relying on vegetative propagation to reproduce. And they grow very slowly. When the ground is disturbed in this part of the world, it may not recover for decades.
As our boats approached the coast, we crossed some imperceptible ecological boundary, though the landscape remained essentially unchanged. Every hour brought new waterfowl: tundra swans, eiders, red-throated loons, yellow-billed loons, Pacific loons, pintails, scaup, long-tailed ducks, and phalaropes. Finally, the river decanted us into the Beaufort Lagoon. Here we beached our rafts a final time on an unnamed barrier island--a mere swipe of gray-brown sand. The pack ice lay some quarter-mile off the seaward side of the island, bleak and quintessentially Arctic-looking.
The chilly open water between island and ice was speckled with waterfowl. Ninety-five bird species from 5 continents and 49 U.S. states migrate to this coastal plain. They come from the tropics, from the temperate zones. The arctic tern, champion migrant, comes all the way from Antarctica--10,000 miles. They have 6 or 8 or 10 short weeks to raise their young before they all make the trip back to their wintering grounds. Why do they come to this remote and barren-looking place? What could possibly be worth such a risky and extravagant journey?
The answer lay in a puddle. Tim Buckley, a high school science teacher along on a training grant, seined tiny creatures from it, cupping them in his palm. "These little shrimplike things are the first-level consumers," he said. "Zooplankton. They eat the phytoplankton.
"The big key is all this sunlight. If you're a little phytoplankton, you just need a few photons to get kicking. The sunlight is strong enough to penetrate a meter of ice, so algae attaches itself to the bottom of the ice, because that's as close as it can get to the sun. I spent a summer on an icebreaker with a roving submersible, and we saw the ice algae--greenish-gold, almost translucent material hanging down under the ice. So the zooplankton eat the algae, and little fish eat the zooplankton--so do bowhead whales, for that matter--and now you've got a food chain going.
"It looks so barren, but this is one of the richest sources of food at this time of year. The Arctic is the only place that you're going to get these kinds of feeding opportunities."
Tim rocked back on his heels. "The thing you can't escape when you're talking about oil up here is: What the hell would you do if something ever went wrong? You could never clean it up. This place would never recover. Prudhoe Bay is very impressive, but that whole area will never be the same. It'll never recover from the kind of land transformation that's gone on there."
Prudhoe Bay is impressive. After eight days on the Aichilik it felt like the set of a science fiction movie. Eight hundred square miles of pipes and gravel pits and giant rectangular boxes and immaculate gravel roads and towering production facilities and operation centers and airports and workers in identical blue coveralls. The largest industrial facility in the world. Seeing it superimposed on the tundra polygons, their soft geometry still visible between the gravel pads and roads, was a little like seeing a bear at the zoo after watching one in the wild. The polygons were there, but their fierce, mysterious beauty was gone.
BP and Phillips Petroleum are the principal oil companies up here now. Though their track record is not perfect, under pressure from the environmental community they have made significant improvements over the years, shrinking the size of the equipment needed for each production facility. Nevertheless, the equipment needed even to survey for oil is mind-boggling in its scale. The May issue of Scientific American offers this list of equipment that oil companies would likely use to survey the 1002 the first winter after opening: "eight vibrating and seven recording vehicles, accompanied by personnel carriers, mechanic trucks, mobile shop trucks, fuel tankers, an incinerator, plus a crew of 80 to 120 people and a camp train of 20 to 25 shipping containers on skis, pulled by several Caterpillar tractors on treads."
The crew would drive up and down and back and forth across the entire coastal plain, leaving a grid of tracks in the tundra, boxes about 1,100 feet square. Each oil company would conduct its own survey, followed by exploratory drilling in promising places with 2.2-million-pound mobile drill rigs. And that's just to look for oil. Never mind extracting and transporting it.
Ronnie Chappell, BP Alaska's affable director of press and publications, took our by now somewhat shabby crew on an excruciatingly thorough tour of Endicott, BP's state-of-the-art production facility on the outskirts of Prudhoe Bay. Ken Boyd, the former director of the Alaska State Division of Oil and Gas, was working with Ronnie on the tour. As a helpful fellow in overalls explained the minutiae of directional drilling, I chatted with Ken: Why is Alaska so intent on opening the refuge? After all, there are abundant opportunities to the west that the oil industry is already pursuing, and the 1002 makes up a fraction--only 4 percent--of Alaska's coastal plain.
"Oil is what Alaska has," Ken said. "If the state had other options, we'd try them. I believe we can drill in the ANWR without causing any damage, and I think we have to do it."
"Is there any place in the state you'd consider off-limits, any place you'd hate to see drilled?"
"If it could be done in an environmentally sensitive way, no."
A growing number of our nation's scientists are determining that drilling in the Arctic Refuge cannot be done in an environmentally sensitive way. The American Society of Mammalogists recently passed a resolution recommending that no drilling take place in the refuge. Audubon Alaska coordinated an open letter from 500 scientists, including George Schaller and E.O. Wilson, urging President Bush to reconsider his position in the face of "five decades of biological study and scientific research." They asked that he "permanently protect the biological diversity and wilderness character of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from future oil and gas development."
And a growing body of evidence suggests that environmentally sensitive drilling may in fact be the contradiction in terms it sounds like. Twice now, The Wall Street Journal, no hotbed of environmental activism, has run articles expressing concern that "oil-rig technology touted by President Bush as environmentally friendly and central to his expanded drilling plans has malfunctioned at rising rates in the past five years on rigs in western Prudhoe Bay."
To this writer, the issue of whether or not the coastal plain can be drilled carefully--made into a sort of Prudhoe Lite--seems beside the point. With the placement of a single length of pipeline in the wilderness we will have stepped over a threshold from which there is no turning back. We will have transformed our "symbolic landscape" into something else: an industrial site. Then we will have to look elsewhere for wilderness.
At the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Fairbanks I saw a picture I'll remember. It showed a shallow rut, straight as a plumb line, running away across the tundra. It is one of 200 sites that botanists are monitoring, relics of a seismic survey conducted in the dead of winter in 1984. The rut, now a venerable 17 years old, shows where a seismic truck compacted soil and scuffed away vegetation. The tundra has still not recovered.
There is no evidence the scar hurts wildlife. After all, it's just a rut. And yet it might as well be a chasm, an impossibly straight, lettuce-green abyss that cuts directly to the heart of the debate: Does the fact that there might be oil in the refuge justify industrializing this rare and precious place? Or, regardless of what's under it, shall we make the Arctic Refuge one of the few American places we keep entirely wild?
Susan McGrath was the environmental columnist for The Seattle Times for eight years. She has written about the Galapagos Islands and about drills for Audubon.