Why We Must Protect The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
I have been fortunate enough to visit the Arctic Refuge three times, twice camping in the mountains and once on the Arctic coast, where they want to drill.
The mountains are heartbreakingly beautiful. We went with friends who were accustomed to hiking in California and they were just stunned by the way you could hike to a peak - you could start your hike in the evening, because it doesn't get dark in the summer - and look down and see no roads, and no people. Just an eagle here and there, maybe a grizzly bear.
The Arctic Coast is not spectacular in the same way as the nearby mountains. But in summer it teems with life, beds of tiny flowers and birds who came a long way to nest in the tundra; loons and jaegers and glaucous gulls, lapland longspurs - and, believe it or not, American robins! Camped right by the ocean, I went to sleep in a tent one night and woke to a strange snorting sound. I looked outside and caribou were everywhere, all around us. I was with a group of artists and there were canvasses stacked nearby in a small tent, we were afraid one of the caribou would put its hoof through the paintings. But it didn't happen. There were mothers and calves...
And when we looked back towards the mountains, the caribou were flowing like a river across the plain. It was just like a dream.
I thought we'd have the company of caribou for the rest of the trip, but by the next day, they were gone except for a few stragglers. There were nesting loons too - a group of scientists showed up and I borrowed a scope and scanned out across the ice. I was looking for polar bears, I guess, but what I saw was a snowy owl. And that's a fine thing to see when you don't expect it. Near our tent, a pair of snow buntings had built their nest on driftwood, we watched them feeding their chicks - we also watched the mangy fox who circled around at some distance from the campground. You can guess the rest of this tragedy.
At any rate, the Arctic coast is special in this area, that's why they classified it as a refuge to begin with. The plain is only thirty miles wide, and so you have a remarkable set of ecosystem changes, from the mountain-lake area, to the coast, to the ocean. And it all fits together quite nicely. As you go west, the plain widens, and so the whole ecology is different from Prudhoe Bay, where the coastal area seems to stretch forever. The topology really does force a choice; you can’t both extract oil and preserve the wilderness character of the land. Unfortunately; there just isn’t enough space to work with.
Where we were camping, Camden Bay, is just where the oil people want to drill. I have seen claims that they won't do any environmental harm. They say this so confidently! But clearly there are many risks; and in particular it is not possible to predict how oil development will affect the caribou calving and migration patterns. Again, the situation is different from Prudhoe Bay, where there was more space to work with, and which was not a central calving area.
And one thing that is rarely mentioned is that when the oil companies come calling they erect fences and no trespassing signs. Sabotage of the pipelines is a big fear. So much for rafting down the rivers to the sea... so much for camping trips like the one I described.
If you'd ever seen it, you'd fight for it. It's quite a trip, and requires chartering a plane. Even most Alaskans haven't been there. The majority of Alaskans support development because it would bring money to the state, at least for a while. But a vocal and sizable minority disagrees, including the Athabascans who live in the vicinity and depend on the caribou herds.
I prefer not to dispute that the oil may be valuable. I'm an economist (at least that's one of my hats). Economics is all about scarcity value. I think it is too bad that we can’t extract that oil without paying such a price, without damaging the wilderness values that this land embodies for us. But I do not think we can. And at this point in human history, the scarcity value of wilderness is greater to society than the scarcity value of that oil.