The Ultimate Confrontation

March 24, 1969
March 24, 1969

Table of Contents
March 24, 1969

Brave Words
Horse Shows
College Basketball
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The Ultimate Confrontation

It has come in the Brooks Range of Alaska, a majestic wilderness where wolves are many and people are rare—or were, until oil gushed at Prudhoe Bay

Sir John Franklin, having left his dying wife in London—she insisted that he depart as scheduled to search for the Northwest Passage—reached his westernmost point at a place he called Prudhoe Bay. He was on the Arctic coast of Alaska, where a featureless plain extended away to the south and ended in a maze of sharp-peaked mountains. One can locate Sir John's Prudhoe Bay in two ways today: on old mariners' charts of the Arctic Ocean or on new maps of the world's oil resources. It is the place where oil was discovered last year in what geologists suspect is one of the largest petroleum fields in the world, bigger than East Texas, bigger than Oklahoma and perhaps as big as Iraq. But Sir John had nothing good to say of the bay. Defeated by the shallowness of the water, the height of the surf, the violence of the gales and the absence of shelter, he had to turn back. That was in 1826, and for the next 142 years Prudhoe Bay cropped up only in a few accounts by Arctic explorers, who regarded it with even less enthusiasm than Franklin.

This is an article from the March 24, 1969 issue Original Layout

Nonetheless, Prudhoe Bay deserves some enthusiasm and attention now, not just in connection with the oil strike there but in terms of how the strike might affect sport, wildlife, conservation, wilderness areas and the attitudes of man toward his environment in this very substantial section of America. It happens that between the oilfield on Prudhoe Bay and the rest of the world lies the Brooks Range, 500 miles long and 150 miles wide, the largest untouched wilderness on the North American continent. Half the Dall sheep of the world live there, as well as enormous herds of caribou—at least 440,000, according to a cautious official estimate last year, and perhaps as many as 1.2 million—and impressive numbers of grizzlies, moose and wolves. The question that arises is not the familiar one of keeping a wild environment forever wild. The issue goes deeper than that, and it should, and it will have to be resolved by more informed and careful thinking than the do-we-exploit or don't-we-exploit philosophies that have dictated natural resources development in this country for years.

It was, perhaps ironically, the discovery of the wonders of the Brooks Range that led to the establishment of wilderness areas in the national forests of the continental United States. Robert Marshall, the first director of recreation in the U.S. Forest Service, made six exploring trips into the Brooks Range when it was unmapped and unknown. There, in the early '30s, he formed his wilderness philosophy, and he adopted the combative and intransigent position that has been the attitude of American conservationists toward their opponents ever since. "The development of Alaskan resources should be retarded," Marshall bluntly told a Senate committee in 1938—and never mind what natural wealth might lie hidden in the wilderness. Marshall urged that the whole area—not only the Brooks Range, but the coastal plain north of it, everything between the Yukon and the Arctic Ocean—should be zoned by the Federal Government to prevent any sort of industrial exploitation.

Until the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery, it seemed Marshall had a case. As far as the Brooks Range was concerned, it made sense; there were no people in the range anyway. The mountains were seen, if at all, from the air. More forbidding than the Rockies, the peaks crowded one upon the other in incredible density and variety, massive pyramids and needle-shaped spires, great metallic-looking domes and vast gray slopes slashed with black ravines and ridges, seeming less like a mountain range than something knocked over and broken in a cosmic disaster that left enormous fragments of wreckage scattered over the frozen earth.

But who could reasonably argue, after the discovery of the largest oilfield in North America, that its development should be prevented for the sake of those gigantic stones? The first news of the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery reached Fairbanks, Alaska on Jan. 16, 1968. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported guardedly that the new well was, except for some test wells in a Navy oil reserve, the only important gas discovery ever made on the Arctic slope. That was an understatement. It was among the largest producing oil wells ever drilled. A little later the Alaska Conservation Review reported a meeting of Fairbanks conservationists with this headline: OIL BOOM THREATENS WILDLIFE RANGES. But neither conservationists nor oilmen had much to say. The atmosphere was like that in the dugout in the seventh inning of a no-hitter. And then, rather dramatically, the tension shifted to ninth-inning levels when Alaska's governor, Walter J. Hickel, was named Secretary of the Interior, an appointment that led to sharp questioning about his conservation and oil philosophies—and intentions. The Brooks Range was now not only geologically famous, but politically famous, too.

Winter hits Prudhoe Bay, the Brooks Range and Fairbanks like a frigid explosion. The lights go out. The curtain falls. For two months the mountains are a region of leaden gray-and-black shadows, with short periods of twilight at midday. It is a silent world of dim crags, large stars, dark stands of dwarf spruce trees, ice-covered rivers and frozen waterfalls hundreds of feet high. Unbelievably, a dozen species of birds remain in the mountains all winter—ptarmigan, ravens, snowy owls, gyrfalcons, jays and crossbills. Dall sheep also remain, staying on the north slopes where light snow and the prevailing winds keep the ridges bare. Caribou browse in the spruce forests south of the mountains, tawny gray shapes so completely hidden by darkness and their own restless movements that no one knows precisely where the main herds winter, except that it is somewhere between the Koyukuk and the Yukon in an unpeopled wilderness the size of Pennsylvania. Last year a herd of considerable size—92,000 according to a government wildlife expert—moved on its traditional migration path from the lichen-covered coastal plain to winter in the narrow valleys in the wildest part of the Brooks Range. For the first time the animals passed, on their way, the Atlantic Richfield drilling crews working on their wells at Prudhoe Bay.

Spring arrives like the opening of the 1812 Overture. The sun, absent since November, comes back as a faint glow in the south. Sunlight touches the tops of the mountains, while the valleys are still black as night. Each day sunshine descends lower on the slopes, and soon it is daylight all the time. In early April the sun sets about 10 at night and rises at 2 in the morning. The rest of the time there is a soft glow, like sunrise. The lights blaze up, the curtain rises and sounds like cannon roaring and armies clashing reverberate as avalanches start and frozen waterfalls crash down. In the last two weeks of May the ice breaks up on the rivers. Diamond Jenness, a young archaeologist, was stranded near Prudhoe Bay during the winter of 1913 and left an account of the coming of the season: "Water began to flow everywhere. New birds appeared.... The rivers broke out all along the coast; their roar could be heard twenty miles away and their dark waters, newly exposed to the light, reflected the somberness of the sky above. Spring had reached us at last."

When the light grows strong the caribou move north through the mountains, the cows, heavy with calves, breaking the way through the snow, the bulls following leisurely later on, with the wolves, some of them the size of ponies, following both. "You better leave the wolves out of it," says Bill Snedden, the publisher of the Daily News-Miner, "or you'll really get in trouble." No one can say anything about wolves in Alaska without starting a sort of scientific barroom fight prompted by outrageous pro-wolf or anti-wolf assertions made by people who know little about wolves. The newspapers print more about wolves than they do about oil, if you count the correspondence columns. A wolf in the Brooks Range lives well, killing one caribou a week, on the average, or about 50 a year. (This is not an outrageous deduction of my own; it can be found on page 193 of Nunamiut, by Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian scientist who lived for a year in the central Brooks Range.) Heading for their calving grounds on the north side of the mountains, into country too bleak and remote for wolves, last year's migrants, or one herd of them, had to pass a second oil well being drilled on the Sagavanirktok River, seven miles from the discovery well.

Because of the difficulty of spelling or pronouncing Sagavanirktok—an Eskimo word for fast water—the river usually is called the Sag. Not a big river, by the standards of the world's immense rivers, the Sagavanirktok is nonetheless historic. It flows steeply from the mountains into Prudhoe Bay, and in some fashion or other most of the few explorers in the Brooks Range have followed its course. The second well is called Sag River One. On June 25, 1968 news reached Fairbanks that Sag River One had come in. This time the News-Miner reported that the field was evidently one of the world's biggest. Within months, 12 drilling rigs had been flown over the mountains to the new field; the freight planes of Alaska Airlines and Interior Airways were booked ahead for 450 flights. (Current figures have dwarfed these; flights from Fairbanks now reach 120 a day, and planes are reported booked for 5,000 flights.)

Never has there been a place so plainly at the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. In the Kobuk Bar in Fairbanks an airline executive says, "Last month we had 17 pilots. This week we have 41." There was a meeting of hunters and conservationists in the clubhouse of the Tanana Valley Sportsman's Association to discuss "The Impact of Oil and Gas Discoveries on the Resources of Alaska." A professor said, yes, oil was a valuable economic resource, but wildlife, vegetation, scenery and wilderness represented potential dollars, too. Yet the conservationists sounded discouraged. Not that the Brooks Range or the coastal plain north of it are in immediate danger of devastation. The uninhabited area concerned is about the size of Italy. Local enthusiasm for the oil discovery was combined with a sense of regret at the end of isolation for the mountains. The world was about to discover the Brooks Range.

The Brooks Range has always been mysterious. The men who explored it were young. Their reports were squirreled away, printed in private editions, lost or buried in scientific volumes with forbidding titles and few readers. Forty years after Sir John Franklin first laid eyes on the range the next explorer, Robert Kennicott, aged 30, saw it from a distance—and turned back. In 1865 far-sighted people were sure it would never be possible to lay a cable under the Atlantic Ocean, and Kennicott was employed by Perry McDonough Collins to seek an alternate route across Canada and Alaska to Siberia.

Kennicott had made expeditions into northern Canada and was almost the only American with both scientific training and Arctic experience. But on this exploration he was soon stranded in the Russian trading post of Nulato, near the junction of the Yukon and the Koyukuk. From there he traveled north "in search of a pass for telegraphic purposes" and found none: "Nothing was seen but continuous ranges of snow-covered mountains rolling one over another for God knows how many miles." Back at Nulato, Kennicott wrote, "I am going to succeed fully by God if it is only to put myself in a position to punish those who have been the cause of this absurd outfit." When spring arrived he exercised every morning on the sand beside the Yukon and made compass bearings of landmarks. One May morning he did not return, and members of his party found him lying dead among diagramed compass figures he had marked in the sand. His death was attributed to heart failure. (The Kennecott Copper Corporation was later named for the dead explorer, but the company organizers misspelled his name.)

"He was murdered," said William Healy Dall, who succeeded Kennicott in the cable route search. Dall talked that way. He was only 21 when he took over. Nobody else wanted the job. In his new post of responsibility Dall tossed around accusations of murder, madness, poisoning, theft and drunken orgies as if he were writing a school paper on how he spent his summer vacation. He looked like a schoolboy, but he was in fact a tireless and fearless collector for the Smithsonian (Dall sheep ultimately were named for him), filling 27 kegs with Arctic plants and picking up shells, bones, skulls, fossils, eggs, fish, furs, Indian ornaments, pipes, carvings, arrows, spears, sleds, snow-shoes, canoes, pottery and 4,550 geological specimens. Dall kept a diary. Alaska was then a Russian penal colony, and he was convinced that the convicts sent there were those too bad to be merely exiled to Siberia. He saw the Russian officials as men "of great energy and iron will, with a fondness for strong liquor and ungovernable passions in certain directions."

It was a trying life for a well-born Bostonian whose scientific training consisted of an unfinished medical course at Harvard. "I rolled myself in a blanket and after some difficulty got to sleep," he wrote at one point. "The rain continued; the Russians were holding an orgy; the dogs howled all night; the roof leaked." Dall eventually made his way 630 miles up the Yukon to a point where he could see the mountains of the Brooks Range to the north. He realized he must be seeing from the south the same range that Sir John Franklin had seen from the Arctic Ocean, but he assumed that, apart from the peaks (where the Arctic National Wildlife Range is now located), only low hills and a level plain lay between the Yukon and the northern sea.

Another youngster, Henry Tureman Allen, aged 26, proved how wrong Dall was. Fresh out of West Point and possessed of a fanatical determination to explore Alaska, Allen was discouraged by the War Department. But he won the support of General Nelson Miles, who in 1885 persuaded the War Department to change its mind for the elementary reason that Alaska had now become U.S. territory and someone should see what we had bought. The Army surrendered with ill grace. Allen was told that he could have no more than three men in his party, including himself, that he could spend only $2,000 and that he must not let his party go hungry because, "you now have ample funds." He was to gather "all information which will be valuable and important, especially to the military branch of the government."

Thus cheered on his way, Allen set out in 1885 with a private and sergeant on an exploring achievement that ranks with those of Lewis and Clark. He made his way up the Copper River in southern Alaska, over the Alaska Range and down the Tanana to the Yukon, charting these river systems for the first time. Then he decided to take a look at the Koyukuk. He headed north some 200 miles over land he said was as saturated as a wet sponge. He had not intended to explore the Koyukuk, but where he encountered it—1,030 river-miles from the sea—the Koyukuk was 300 yards wide, 14 feet deep and moving four miles an hour. He thought that perhaps it flowed from some immense lake in the flatlands that Dall said stretched to the Arctic. But after poling upstream for seven days Allen became aware of cold winds that had to come from snow peaks. He turned north up a big tributary, later called John River, and found himself in the central Brooks Range, with snow-covered mountains stretching from east to west along the northern horizon.

Allen's book about this trip has perhaps the least fetching title in the annals of exploration. He called it Report of an Expedition to the Copper, Tanana and Koyukuk Rivers in the Territory of Alaska for the Purpose of Obtaining All Information which Will Be Valuable and Important Especially to the Military Branch of the Government. Whether or not this was an elliptical reference to his orders, it killed the sale of the book. But Allen's later career was so distinguished—he was commander of the Army of Occupation in Germany in 1919 and military attaché to Berlin and Moscow—that his youthful exploration was forgotten. He named the mountains for William Endicott, the Secretary of War in Cleveland's administration, and a generation passed before it was known that half a dozen separate chains—the Romanzof Mountains, the Endicotts and others—were part of a single connected range. The whole range was then named for Dr. Alfred Brooks, an Alaskan authority and director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Lieutenant Allen did not know it, but in that same winter of 1885 a Navy expedition reached the Brooks Range only 130 miles west of where he was. Lieutenant George Stoney headed a party of six officers and 12 men. They spent the months of darkness in a cabin they called Fort Cosmos. Unlike Allen, Stoney was a vivid writer, but he was even more unfortunate: his book disappeared. One of his officers, Ensign William Howard (aged 26), became the first explorer ever to cross through the mountains to the Arctic, so Stoney had a genuine adventure story to tell. He was amazed at the grandeur of the setting: magnificent scenery, deep gorges, rolling valleys, turbulent rivers, enormous waterfalls and the incredible variety of the mountains—"They appear every way and shape; there are rugged, weather-scarred peaks, lofty minarets, high towers and rounded domes, with circular knobs, flat tops, serrated edges and smooth backbones." The lakes were filled with salmon, the largest reaching six feet long. Sheefish—which some gourmets say is the best-tasting fish in the world—were plentiful. The men lived on ptarmigan, rabbits, geese, ducks and 2,500 pounds of caribou meat, with fresh meat twice a week during the winter and every day in the spring.

Congress authorized the publication of Stoney's book (called Naval Explorations in Alaska), but then, as Stoney wrote laconically, "In some way the papers have mysteriously disappeared." They were never found.

In 1898 some 80,000 gold seekers arrived in Alaska, and 1,200 of these strayed into the upper Koyukuk region and the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. One prospector picked up a nugget worth $660 on a creek that flowed into the North Fork of the Koyukuk. On nearby Howard Creek another prospector found a $1,100 nugget. Half a dozen towns started on the edge of the mountain country, but the Brooks Range was never popular gold-hunting territory. Two towns survived, after a fashion. Wiseman, with a population of 80 in 1929, was down to five inhabitants last year. Bettles, at the junction of the John River and the Koyukuk, is now only a landing field.

There were places in Alaska where it was easier and more rewarding to search for gold, and conservationists never had reason to fear that the few miners who worked in the Brooks Range would damage its wilderness character. But Alaska's second gold rush—the one for oil—is a different matter. When Ensign Howard managed to get through the mountains in 1886 he observed the natives using chunks of oil-soaked shale in their fires. Ernest de Koven Leffingwell, a 29-year-old geologist employed by the U.S. Geological Survey who explored the region around Prudhoe Bay in 1906 at his own expense, reported oil seepages. In 1913 another explorer, Jenness, noted in his diary a native's description of a strange lake of oil some distance inland. In 1917 one Sandy Smith actually found the lake, which turned out to be a large, above-ground oil seepage. By 1921 oil-company experts were examining the area. In all, nine places were discovered where gas was escaping or where oil was flowing from the earth. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, always interested in what happened in oil, noted that 50 applicants had been allocated 125,000 acres of public land for development.

But consider the date. In May 1921 Fall persuaded President Harding to transfer control of the Navy's three oil reserves (set aside to insure oil for warships in the event of future needs) from the Navy to the Interior Department, a move for which Harding might well have been impeached if he had lived. Fall then secretly leased one of the reserves, Teapot Dome in Wyoming, without competitive bidding. A month later he received $198,000 as a payoff. By January 1923 his take had totaled $400,000. One month later he had the coastal plain of Alaska set aside as Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4. The first three Navy oil reserves totaled only 78,000 acres, but the new one covered 20 million acres. "For years seepages of oil have been found all along the coast," Fall said blandly.

The executive order specified that Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 was to run from the northwestern extremity of Alaska, near Point Barrow, some 250 miles due south to "the crest of a range of mountains"—the Brooks Range had not been named in those days—that formed the watershed between rivers flowing to the Arctic and those flowing to the Pacific. The boundary then ran east for some 200 miles along the crest of said mountains to a certain unnamed mountain peak at latitude 67° 50' and longitude 156° 8'—it never has been named—and then north to the west bank of the Colville River, downstream to the coast and westward back to the point of beginning. This was 36,000 square miles in all—a tract a little bigger than Hungary—that included the area where oil was flowing above the ground. (Prudhoe Bay is a few miles east of the Colville River, just outside the boundary of the reserve.) Nobody knows what Fall planned to do with this immense new terrain, but before anyone could do anything with it the Teapot Dome scandal erupted. After numerous hearings and investigations Fall was brought to trial in 1929.

It was in the summer of that year that Robert Marshall, a 28-year-old forester, set out on the first of six trips to the Brooks Range which made those mountains famous. Marshall, a wealthy New Yorker working for his doctorate in plant physiology at Johns Hopkins University, wanted to study the northern limit of the tree line. He was muscular, rangy, high-spirited, energetic and clumsy, but he knew something about mountains. His parents had a summer home in the Adirondacks, and as a boy Marshall climbed all of the 42 peaks in the Adirondacks that were more than 4,000 feet.

In Fairbanks, Marshall, with the help of the University of Alaska, found a guide, a Polish-born mining student named Al Retzlaf, but Retzlaf had never been in the Brooks Range either. The two newcomers to the territory then flew to Wiseman, rented the only two horses in town—probably the only two above the Arctic Circle—and headed north over the gray and green foothills for the central Brooks Range.

After a week they reached country that Marshall found more spectacular than the Rockies or the Sierras—and he knew the American wilderness as well as anyone. At the gorge of the Clear River—about five days north of Wiseman—where the stream races for 10 miles between canyon walls too narrow for passage, they climbed to a plateau a thousand feet above the rapids. Ten miles ahead they could see a monstrous tower of rock that Marshall named Mount Boreal. It rose straight up for 6,000 feet. Directly opposite it, across the narrow valley, was a jagged needle projection not quite as high that marked the gates of the Arctic. The main Brooks Range spread away endlessly east and west. "Every mountain was covered with snow, every peak showed a clear white edge set against pure blue. There was not a cloud in the sky," wrote Marshall.

Why, Marshall wondered, had no one written about this incredible land? He came to a valley more beautiful than any encountered so far, with a grassy floor and sheer stone walls that rose thousands of feet high (the headwaters of Ernie Creek, on modern maps) where a river dropped 1,500 feet in waterfalls at the end. Retzlaf shot a grizzly there; Marshall drew maps, named mountains and photographed a landscape he was now sure surpassed the grandeur of Yellowstone or Yosemite.

Soon he came to the Arctic Divide, a limestone palisade a thousand feet high. Not far away he counted 13 great waterfalls in a single mile-and-a-half stretch, including one that crashed straight down a thousand feet. The weather remained a comfortable 24°, the air sparkling clear. He climbed a peak he named Rumbling Mountain—he named 127 places in the Brooks Range—and found "the most impressive view of my life." Along a sharp wall were 10 knife-edged ridges, each with a giant precipice, each rising thousands of feet above gorges and beyond them a green rolling valley like those of the Adirondacks, a panorama "of rivers unvisited by man, deep canyons and hanging valleys glimpsed from a distance but never explored, great mountains which no human being had ever ascended."

Marshall now faced a dilemma, one that has burdened American conservationists ever since. He had to record the magnificent mountain world he had found. But if he did, his work might attract the tourists who would end the untouched wilderness character that made the range unique. He solved his problem by writing a book about his exploration, handsomely illustrated with his photographs, but he printed only a few copies. These he gave to his friends and to wilderness enthusiasts who could be counted on to recognize that the grandeur of the Brooks Range might be spoiled if too many people knew about it.

Marshall and Retzlaf returned to the mountains in the summer of 1930 for a longer trip that gave Marshall the material for a second book, likewise privately printed and so limited in circulation as to be almost secret. But Marshall also published a popular book. He spent 15 months in 1930 and 1931 in the town of Wiseman, where he wrote Arctic Village, a sociological study that became a bestseller and made him famous, but which, paradoxically, said nothing about the wonders of the Brooks Range that filled Marshall's two privately printed volumes. Arctic Village became a sensation in the U.S., but it was an even greater sensation in Wiseman, where it was said Marshall would be lynched if he ever came back to town.

Unpublicized though it was, the Brooks Range wilderness continued to exert profound influence on the U.S. conservation movement through Marshall, who, under Franklin Roosevelt, had authority over outdoor recreation in 180 million acres of national forest land. He used that authority vigorously, principally to establish a system of wilderness and primitive areas in the national forests, setting aside 81 of those areas from which all forms of mechanization were forever barred.

Even more influential was Marshall's concept of a wilderness elite. "Only a small minority of the human race will ever consider primeval nature a basic source of happiness," he wrote. "Quality as well as quantity must enter into any evaluation of competing types of recreation, because one really deep experience may be worth an infinite number of ordinary experiences." Venturers into the wilderness were a superior class, he felt, because their self-testing gave them emotions that were intrinsically more valuable than the casual sightseeing of millions. And the Brooks Range was always, for him, the ultimate wilderness, the ultimate experience.

There is now a town called Anaktuvuk Pass (Zip Code 97721) right in the middle of the central Brooks Range, with 119 Eskimos, a schoolteacher and a Vista volunteer, a new schoolhouse and a gravel airstrip. One can take off from Fairbanks at 10 in the morning on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday and fly north a few hundred miles across the broad, watery valley of the Yukon to Bettles, 45 miles above the Arctic Circle. En route, it becomes dramatically apparent that the country just south of the Brooks Range is an unending expanse of low hills covered with shining yellow birches and dark stands of green-black Alaska spruce. There are no signs of human habitation, no roads. The only breaks in the forest are the shining still surfaces of winding rivers bordered with immense sandbars as level and empty as supermarket parking lots on a Sunday morning.

At Bettles there is a first glimpse of the mountains, incised on the northern horizon in white and steel-blue peaks. The seats are taken out of the plane in Bettles, and various necessities of life in Anaktuvuk Pass—plywood walls for shelters, bags of onions, cans of chili con carne—are strapped into the cabin. Leaving Bettles, the plane climbs high over John River. Bright sunlight strikes the tops of the mountains in all directions, and thin blue shadows below the peaks create an impression of a world of nothing but mountains, empty and geometrical, all tilted planes and angles. Any horizontal line gets bent, broken, crushed, upended; there are no flat places in this world.

Was Marshall right? Is the Brooks Range more awe-inspiring than Yellowstone or Yosemite? Well, yes. But in an unexpected way. For an hour or so we flew low over the John River, where 5,000-foot mountains on both sides block out the distant peaks. I could look out of either side of the plane and see extremely large chunks of very hard rock appallingly near. But the land beneath those forbidding stones is strikingly parklike and genial. It is the contrast between the gaunt, frozen peaks and the garden appearance of the little valleys that makes this mountain range unique, a mixture of overpowering strength and fragility, with constantly changing patterns instead of the uniform grandeur of the Rockies.

Even more meaningful, perhaps, is the solitude, which envelops everything in a shell of silence that makes the Brooks Range inspiring in a way that familiar places such as Yellowstone can never be again. So, in a sense, Marshall was right: these unexplored mountains are more impressive than the most famous of our national parks.

Almost any writer mentioning the Brooks Range stresses its strange combination of strength and vulnerability, of the harsh and the gentle. Commander John Reed, the director of the Arctic Institute, who was in charge of the Navy's exploration of Petroleum Reserve No. 4, observed how the region was easily-scarred: "Vehicle tracks are likely to remain easily visible for years because of the slow recovery of tundra vegetation. Even winter tracks may long be visible because the compacted snow affects the following summer's growth."

The record goes back a long way. Ejnar Mikkelsen was a young Dane who borrowed money to go there with Leffingwell in 1906. In Conquering the Arctic Ice he described a trip into the eastern Brooks Range, where he camped in a forest of dwarf trees many years old but only shoulder high, where "the mountains were towering over our heads and the sound of falling water was the only noise in the great frozen country." Constance and Harmon Helmericks, the authors of We Live in the Arctic, spent 1945 in a cabin on the Alatna River, near where Lieutenant Stoney had lived 60 years before. They watched a herd of 100,000 caribou stream past, 4,000 a day for a month. Lois Crisler, who wrote Arctic Wild, lived through the winter of 1957 on the Killik River in a landscape where ancient birch trees grow only ankle high.

Most of them said the winters were livable. Some of them said they were enchanting. Mikkelsen wrote of winter darkness: "These days in the Arctic are the finest that man can see. The air is fresh, clean and bracing; we feel the joy of living so much we frisk about like puppies." Nicholas Gubser, a Yale scientist who lived through 1960 at Anaktuvuk Pass—he could not keep up his notes during the winter because he had to hunt to keep from starving—said that only at 40° below zero was he really cold.

But all the reports agree on one vital point: the Brooks Range is not only the greatest wilderness left, it is also the most fragile. Its thin land surface cracks like an eggshell. Nothing decays or sinks into the earth. The healing underbrush and vines that soon hide a forest camp in the continental U.S. are absent: the campsite will remain visible forever. The tracks made by the Navy's exploring vehicles 25 years ago still crawl through the foothills, like the trail of some prehistoric monster which had dragged itself in from the sea. In many areas there are no trees to screen anything; an empty oil drum is visible for miles and looks enormous. Along the big rivers are rushing streams that are called creeks—really good-sized rivers in their own right. "There are trails all along those creeks," wrote Donald Orth, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey crew that mapped the Brooks Range. "That doesn't mean that many people have walked along them, but if a couple of people do so, it makes a trail."

One gets to Anaktuvuk Pass on the plane from Fairbanks about 2:30 in the afternoon. The pass suddenly widens out to an expanse of level ground several miles wide, and to the north the terrain can be seen gradually curving down 2,200 feet to the Arctic Ocean 150 miles beyond. On this particular day caribou herds were coming through the pass; the advance bands had been seen the day before, somewhat behind schedule. Traditionally the hunters let the advance bands pass; otherwise the main herd may be frightened into following some unknown route a hundred miles away. Formerly they were hard to hunt because of the lack of cover, and a shot within 150 yards was rare. But now they are hunted in snowmobiles. The Eskimos ride into the main herd, shooting at close range like oldtime buffalo hunters, and a single hunt may—and hopefully will—supply a village with food for the winter.

This sounds like butchery but it is not. "There is no limit on caribou north of the Arctic Circle," says Robert Hinman, the district director of the Alaska Fish and Game Commission. "The herd is underharvested. Moose—no problem. Dall sheep—in specific areas there may be a decline, but not as a general condition. There are only about 25 guides who fly hunting parties into the mountains regularly or occasionally, perhaps a few more now, because the Alaska Range in the south is being heavily hunted and guides there are flying some parties to the Brooks. Fishing is usually an adjunct to a hunting party. The oil-drilling crews do not hunt much, as a rule, but they fish a good deal. No, the thing that scares me is not the depletion of the wildlife, but the fact that the Brooks Range is such a fragile environment. Anything that is done there leaves a mark. Inevitably there is going to be some scarring of the landscape. The question is, how much can it be controlled and reduced?"

Yes, that is the question. The villagers in Anaktuvuk Pass are the last inland Eskimos left. They have been so often interviewed that they greet an incoming plane with a smiling readiness to answer questions; the white people they have met have been geologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, botanists, zoologists, limnologists, soil scientists and experts from the Arctic Institute. The Eskimos seem to feel that the outside world is composed of educated people concerned with Eskimo lore. Some of them, like Simon Paneak, have appeared in so many erudite books that they are intellectual figures and are called upon to correct manuscripts. But today there are a lot more visitors to Anaktuvuk Pass, and not just questioners. A boom is on. Eskimos are being trained to work on oil rigs, a pipeline is projected that will go through the pass to Prudhoe Bay and a winter road has been completed to the oilfields.

In the thin afternoon light, so uniformly blue and shadowless it seems as if the world has suddenly turned pale, Anaktuvuk Pass looks unreal. It is the last area in the world where one would expect that a major industrial development could cause concern. All that space—wild, virginal. But the facts are inescapable. If there were ever a place where progress and conservation come into direct confrontation it is the Brooks Range. For the first time in history the alternatives are absolute. There is an untouched wilderness on one hand and an enormous natural resource on the other. Industry has never before had such a clear opportunity to develop the resource and still preserve the wilderness. There are two causes to be served. Perhaps, with unusual thought and care, both can be served.

MAPThe Brooks Range sweeps 500 miles from Canada to the Bering Sea. Deep blue portion of inset shows area covered by large map.TWO PHOTOSPHOTOThe youthful Dall suspected murder.PHOTOKennicott sought a route to Russia.PHOTOArmy's Allen had a "strong desire."PHOTOBut Navy's Stoney had real support.PHOTOFall sniffed riches in the oily range.


Arctic Circle
Bering Sea
Gulf of Alaska
Sagavanirktok R.
Canning R.
Colville R.
Kobuk R.
John R.
Koyukuk R.
Mt. Doonerak
Yukon River