The first sign of the caribou was blood from the previous day's
kill: a crimson stain in a wilderness of white. The herd--3,000
animals that had wintered in the vicinity of Arctic Village,
Alaska--was foraging somewhere in the nearby hills. Joel Tritt,
the wiry 44-year-old Gwich'in Indian who was leading the
three-man hunt, wasn't sure if the caribou had gone over that
rise or the next. The three snowmobiles on which the hunters
rode, each dragging an empty sled to carry the kill, were a big
improvement over the dogsleds and snowshoes that Tritt's parents
and grandparents had used. What they really needed, however, was
a helicopter. It's a measure of the vastness of the Alaskan
wilderness above the Arctic Circle that 3,000 caribou can vanish
like a flock of quail.
This is an article from the May 13, 2002 issue
Tritt headed away from Airport Lake toward a ridge. His cousin
Albert Tritt followed, while the third hunter, Blue Sky, stayed
behind, walking parallel to the lake. Signs of the caribou were
everywhere: scattered hoofprints, patches of snow that had been
pawed down to the ground cover, frozen droppings. But it was hard
to tell whether the signs were two hours, two days or two weeks
old. The day was still. Tiny ice crystals sparkled in the air
like diamond dust.
"There," Joel said a few minutes later, stopping his snowmobile
and pointing through some trees. He silently unsheathed his
rifle, a .30-30 Winchester. Tritt's skin is copper-colored, and
his shoulder-length black hair is tied back Indian-style with a
broad black bandanna, but on this day his dress is Western:
jeans, Sorel boots, a black fleece-lined parka under a camouflage
jacket. Not a stitch of caribou skin, the traditional garb of the
Gwich'in Indians. "I was born right in the middle, between the
old ways and the new," he said later. "I understand both very
Like most Gwich'in his age, Tritt has no front teeth. When he was
a boy, Western civilization introduced soft drinks and sugar to
Arctic Village (pop. 152) before it brought toothbrushes. In the
old days Tritt's grandparents had chewed on hardwood sticks to
prevent tooth decay, and some elders had kept their teeth for 90
Modern man brought other changes too. Tritt remembers when it was
an event to see an airplane fly overhead. The village, which is
150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, was utterly isolated,
unconnected by road to any other community, the nearest of which
was 100 miles away. Now Arctic Village has its own runway, and
mail and supplies arrive on a scheduled flight every day.
Tritt remembers when the first snowmobile arrived, in 1965. Now
electricity has come to the village, and gas is $4 a gallon.
There's a small school. Satellite TV. There's still no indoor
plumbing in the homes, simple plywood structures heated by
wood-burning stoves. The residents still dig outhouses in the
permafrost and have to carry water to their houses from a
purification station. But a lot else has changed since the late
1960s, when the oil fields to the north in Prudhoe Bay were
"We were so untouched and wild," Tritt says. "So innocent in the
ways of the world. When I was young, the older people in the
village thought the white men's ways were the best. They could
fly. What a wonder. So we were taught English in school. Some of
our young men went to work in the oil fields. But starting around
20 years ago, that thinking began to change. We'd seen the new
ways. We knew they were wrong for our people. It was prophesied
by the elders that things would change a great deal for the
Gwich'in for a while, but then we'd need to learn the old ways
again. So my father tried to teach me the old ways real fast."
How to trap marten and lynx and wolf. How to snare fox and rabbit
and wolverine. How to skin and tan and fish. Tritt went to his
first caribou hunt as a young child on his father's back, and he
shot his first caribou when he was 12. The caribou of the
Porcupine herd migrate past Arctic Village twice each year, going
to and coming from their calving grounds 800 miles away. It's why
the village was built where it is, on the banks of the East Fork
of the Chandalar River.
The caribou Tritt had spotted were moving now, through the spruce
trees a couple of hundred yards ahead, unsettled by the sound of
the snowmobiles. He jumped on his snowmobile and took off after
them, disappearing over the ridge, saying he'd try to drive them
back toward the other hunters.
It was 45 minutes before he returned. On the back of his sled
were two caribou. "I'm pretty sure that one might be with calf,"
Tritt said, pointing to one of his kills as he sharpened his
knife. Both animals had to be skinned, gutted and cut up on the
spot, and there were only two hours of daylight left. Steam rose
from the dead caribou, their body heat making it unnecessary for
the hunters to wear gloves. Tritt and Blue Sky worked skillfully,
methodically with their knives. Both animals were pregnant
females. He carefully set aside the fetuses, clearly outlined
within the wombs. "This is a delicacy that we give to the
elders," Tritt said. "They can chew the meat without any teeth."
At a Sierra Club fund-raiser in Anchorage the night before, a
Gwich'in Indian, Faith Gemmill, wearing traditional native
attire, had eloquently told how her people depend on the caribou
for everything: food, clothing, tools. Caribou provide some 75%
of the calories in the Gwich'in's diet. The animals' skins are
used to make clothes and shoes. The sinew is used to make thread.
The femur is used to make tanning tools. Every part of the animal
is used but the lungs, she said.
But it's 15 below and the sun is suspended just above the horizon
like a bright piece of ice, so they leave a lot behind. The
intestines, a delicacy, have to be meticulously emptied, a
process for which the hunters had neither the time nor the
patience. It was the last day of March, and they were still an
hour's ride from the village. "We'll leave something for our
friends the wolves," Blue Sky said, eyeing the fading light.
The hunting season was growing short. In mid-April the surviving
members of those 3,000 caribou that had wintered near Arctic
Village would begin the 800-mile trip to the calving grounds,
joining the other 120,000 or so members of the Porcupine herd. It
would be a long, hard journey, east into the northwestern corner
of Canada, across the Porcupine River, north to the Yukon coast
and then west to the coastal plain of the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a flat, fertile tundra where caribou have
been calving for thousands of years.
The Sacred Place Where Life Begins--that's how the Gwich'in elders
sometimes speak of that stretch (20-40 miles wide) between the
Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea. Geologists and petroleum
engineers have another name for ANWR's 1.5-million-acre plain.
They call it the 1002 Area, and it's teeming with oil.
Two days later, 150 miles to the north, another bright splash of
crimson lay on a snowy plain. It was oval, shiny, smooth.
Children's voices were coming closer, and a mittened hand--with
the wind chill the temperature was 30 below--reached down to pick
up the treasure, hoping it was one of the red plastic Easter eggs
with a $50 bill inside. Other eggs had $20 bills. A dozen kids,
laughing and racing in their Sunday best, searched the ground for
candy and loot while their parents and grandparents watched from
inside the Kaktovik Community Center.
From toddlers to elders, the village of Kaktovik (pop. 293),
which lies just inside the northern boundary of ANWR, had
gathered on Easter Sunday at 2 p.m. for the hunt. It was a
typically American ritual in the most atypical of settings, with
bone-chilling cold and the blinding reflection of the Arctic sun
off the windblown snow.
Eighty-five percent of the people present were Inupiat Eskimo.
They all looked healthy and happy. They all had homes. They had
oil heat. They had indoor plumbing and a new sewage system. They
had a good school. And for anyone who wanted to work, they had
jobs with decent wages. These, the Inupiat Eskimo were certain,
were the best of times, and they were tired of outsiders coming
in and describing them as greedy and shortsighted for wanting to
keep what had been given them by the windfall of oil. For without
oil none of the improvements in their lives would have been made.
The Inupiat would still be living in unheated shacks, struggling
to feed themselves on fish, migratory birds, whales, seals, musk
oxen and caribou.
It's a sign of the small world we live in: A remote Arctic tundra
that until recently was of importance only to a few Eskimo, polar
bears, migratory shorebirds and caribou has become the heart of a
contentious national debate with global implications. A cacophony
of disparate voices--editorialists, talk-radio screamers,
government-policy nerds, lobbyists, the President, presidential
wannabes--has related just about every hot-button issue of the
21st century to whether or not we drill in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge. National security is at stake, we are warned.
The war on terrorism teeters in the balance. Global warming, the
U.S. economy, human rights--you name it, and ANWR has a connection
The Bush Administration, backed by the oil industry and the
Teamsters union, made drilling in ANWR's coastal plain central to
its energy bill, and the House of Representatives passed it last
summer by a vote of 240-189. "The Teamsters vigorously supported
the bill on the basis of job creation, which took the
environmental community a little by surprise," says David
Moulton, a spokesman for Representative Ed Markey (D., Mass.),
the member of the House Resources Committee who led the
Spurred into action, a wide array of opponents--scientists,
environmental groups, wildlife resource managers, human rights
groups and the Gwich'in nation--lobbied vigorously to prevent
passage of the bill in the Senate as long as it included ANWR
drilling. So far it has succeeded. Senate Democratic leaders let
the bill languish over the winter, and two powerful Northeastern
Democrats, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of
Massachusetts, both with presidential aspirations, vowed to
filibuster any energy package that opened ANWR to drilling. The
result was that before passing its version of the energy bill on
April 25, the Senate eliminated the ANWR provision. The
differences between the House and the Senate bills will be
resolved in conference, but it's unlikely that Congress will
allow ANWR drilling anytime soon.
The public goes back and forth on ANWR drilling. When the world
seems relatively stable, a majority of Americans don't want to
see the refuge opened to drilling. But sentiment has shifted in
the aftermath of international crises, as in the weeks following
the Sept. 11 attacks and, more recently, Saddam Hussein's attempt
to organize an OPEC boycott of the U.S., which caused a spike in
the price of crude oil.
ANWR was created in 1960, when President Dwight Eisenhower set
aside 8.9 million acres in the northeastern corner of Alaska for
the preservation of its "unique wildlife, wilderness and
recreational values." He might have added "strategic values,"
since the U.S. military had established a Distant Early Warning
(DEW) station inside the refuge boundaries, on Barter Island, so
that if the Soviet Union started firing its missiles at the U.S.,
Americans could die comforted by the knowledge that we'd had time
to fire ours back.
In 1980 President Jimmy Carter expanded the refuge to its current
size, 19.6 million acres, under the Alaska National Interest Land
Conservation Act. But there was a caveat: Section 1002 of the act
recognized that the North Slope coastal plain, which is
approximately the size of Delaware and serves as a bridge between
the snow-covered Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea, needed
further study, for both its oil and gas potential and for its
importance in wildlife preservation.
Ever since then, through the presidencies of Ronald Reagan,
George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, a battle has
been waged on the future of the 1002 Area. Environmental
organizations, calling the 1002 Area "the biological heart of the
refuge," have lobbied Congress to permanently protect it against
petroleum development. Oil and gas concerns, which already have
the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in place and are operating next door to
ANWR in the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, have pushed to open the
1002 Area to drilling. As the Prudhoe Bay fields have begun to
dwindle--the pipeline is handling just over a million barrels per
day now, down from a peak of 2.1 million barrels a day in
1987--the heat on Congress has been turned up by both camps.
Twice Congress has come close to opening the refuge to drilling.
During the first Bush Administration sentiment was strongly in
favor of it until the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William
Sound in 1989 and created the largest ecological disaster in U.S.
history. Then in 1995 a Republican-controlled Congress passed
ANWR drilling legislation but didn't have the votes to override a
Clinton veto. These near misses have fueled the ever-escalating
rhetoric that prevails today.
Few people sit on the fence on ANWR drilling, despite the fact
that the refuge is so remote that few Americans have ever been to
it. That's too bad, because it's a remarkable place. "It's the
largest and most northerly of our wildlife refuges, with the
greatest variety of plant and animal life in the circumpolar
north," says Karen Boylan, assistant regional director for the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Alaska. "People should
care what happens there. If you put industry in a wilderness
area, is it still wilderness? I'd say no. This is of the highest
Thirty-six land-mammal species live in the refuge, including all
three North American bears. There are also nine marine-mammal
species, 36 fish species and 135 bird species, 70 of them regular
nesters. There are 18 rivers in the refuge. The 1002 Area is on
the migratory route of as many as 300,000 snow geese, who fatten
up on the plain's cotton grass in late summer. It's also the
calving and postcalving area for the 123,000-member Porcupine
caribou herd, and it's the most important polar bear denning area
on the North Slope.
In sum, ANWR is a long way from a "moonscape," as The Wall Street
Journal described it in an April 11 editorial that endorsed
opening the refuge to drilling. Flying over it, even in winter,
provides vistas of breathtaking beauty. The flat plain, which is
snow-covered for nine months of the year, stretches out like a
thousand salt flats and then abruptly runs into the Brooks Range.
To find the life that thrives in a place of such extremes, you
must look closely, into the draws where the long-haired musk oxen
browse on willow shoots or on the cliffs where surefooted Dall
sheep disappear against the snow. Grizzly bears, Arctic foxes,
rabbits, ground squirrels, lemmings and frogs all have highly
specialized adaptations that have enabled them to survive in this
harsh environment for millennia.
"It looks desolate, but it's not desolate to the animals," says
Rodney Moore, a spokesman for Canada's Department of Foreign
Affairs, which has been trying to get the U.S. to declare the
area a permanent wilderness area since the mid-1980s. In 1987 the
two nations signed an agreement "to take appropriate action to
conserve the Porcupine Caribou herd and its habitat."
Canada, which has 10,000 indigenous people in the Yukon
Territory who depend on the Porcupine herd for food, made the
western range of the herd secure by creating the Vuntut and
Ivvavik National Parks, in 1984 and 1993, respectively, despite
evidence of substantial oil and gas reserves in those areas. But
to date the U.S. hasn't reciprocated by protecting the herd's
calving grounds. It's been a source of consternation to the
Canadian government, which provides the U.S. with 17.2% of its
oil imports, 1.9 million barrels a day--more than the rosiest
estimates of potential ANWR production. "We're concerned for the
Gwich'in people, who use caribou in so many ways," says Moore.
"It's true that the exploration phase of the drilling only
leaves a small footprint. But once permanent development is
implemented, you'll have hundreds of miles of pipelines, gravel
roads, waste-handling facilities, airports, power plants,
docking facilities, base camps, small reservoirs and several
production pads. Canada supports responsible oil development in
habitats that are not critical, but we consider the calving
grounds on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to be critical
to the survival of the Porcupine caribou and to the way of life
of the Gwich'in people."
Those in favor of drilling say that such fears are overblown and
that the health of the Central Arctic caribou herd in Prudhoe
Bay proves that oil fields and caribou are compatible. Since
1968, when Prudhoe Bay opened, that herd has grown from 5,000
animals to 27,000, and pro-drilling lobbyists have distributed
thousands of photographs of caribou grazing contentedly near the
pipelines. Furthermore, since drilling and exploration in ANWR
would be done only in winter, the caribou and their calves would
be long gone from the coastal plain. But a recent study by the
U.S. Geological Survey on the potential environmental impact
acknowledges that the "expected effects that could be observed
include reduced survival of calves during June...and,
potentially, reduced weight and reduced probability of
conception for parturient females in the fall."
"Comparing the Central Arctic caribou herd to the Porcupine herd
is apples to oranges," says Boylan. "There are five times fewer
animals in the Central Herd and five times more habitat. And the
Central Herd doesn't migrate."
Ken Whitten, a wildlife biologist who worked for the state of
Alaska at Prudhoe Bay in 1975, found that female caribou with
calves were less likely to graze near the pipelines and they
wouldn't bear calves near them. "They moved to a new calving area
where the forage quality was lower," he says. "We found that
caribou that lived near the oil fields gained less weight during
the summer than those in an undisturbed area. That translates to
lower pregnancy percentages, since pregnancy rates depend on the
fall weight of the females."
What concerns Whitten and other experts is that if the Porcupine
caribou's traditional calving grounds are crisscrossed with
pipelines, their only alternative would be the foothills of the
Brooks Range, where their predators--bears, wolves and golden
eagles--are concentrated. Calf survival rates would almost
certainly go down. "The herd wouldn't disappear," Whitten says,
"but its population would oscillate around a much lower number.
Some of the villages on the periphery of the migration wouldn't
get a harvest, including Arctic Village, where only a small part
of the herd winters as it is."
How much oil is in the 1002 Area? Arctic Power, a pro-drilling
lobbying group funded by the state government, oil interests and
individuals, likes to cite a range between 5.7 billion and 16
billion barrels of recoverable oil. But those numbers fail to
take costs into account. "Oil reserves almost anywhere on earth
are more accessible and more reliably deliverable than those
above the Arctic Circle," Amory and Hunter Lovins, founders of
the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rocky Mountain Institute and longtime
consultants to oil companies, wrote in the July/August 2001
edition of Foreign Affairs. "Even if drilling in the Arctic
Wildlife Refuge posed no environmental or human rights concerns,
it still could not be justified on economic...grounds."
Alaska oil is so expensive to produce that even the oil
companies already doing business on the North Slope have
reservations about the financial wisdom of drilling in the
refuge. "The ANWR issue has been kicking around for 20 years,"
says Ronnie Chappell, a spokesman for BP in Alaska. BP recently
announced it was scaling back its Alaska operations in favor of
increased offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico. Independent
analysts estimate that the realistic figure for economically
recoverable oil in the refuge is about 3.2 billion barrels,
assuming the price of oil is $20 a barrel. And while today's
prices are higher than that--Alaskan crude was selling for
$25.42 in early May--it hasn't been a good bet in the past
decade to assume oil prices will outpace inflation. Between 1991
and '99 the average price of a gallon of crude never exceeded
$20 a barrel, and as recently as 1998 it was selling for $13. At
prices below $16 a barrel, some experts say, there is no
economically recoverable oil in the refuge.
Still, 3.2 billion barrels is a lot of oil. It's worth about $80
billion at today's prices, which, drilling proponents point out,
is $80 billion that can be taken off the U.S. trade deficit. That
$80 billion would also generate several billion dollars in
federal and state taxes, which Alaska desperately needs since
residents pay no state income or sales tax. Eighty percent of
Alaska's general budget comes from oil taxes and fees, which have
steadily declined since the peak production years of the late
1980s. The state's budget for 2002 is projected to be some $800
million in the red, and without instituting some kind of state
income tax, it is estimated that Alaska's budget reserve will dry
up in 2004.
Little wonder, then, that three of every four Alaskans favor
opening up ANWR to drilling. Oil has treated them well. Not only
does it finance almost all the state's business, but it also pays
citizens an annual bonus. The $27 billion Permanent Fund, which
was built from oil revenue, paid $1,850 to every Alaskan resident
last year. It is money Alaskans have come to look upon as their
birthright. "Not only do we refuse to tax ourselves, we want a
handout too," says Stan Senner, an Anchorage resident who is the
executive director of Audubon Alaska. "It's obscene."
Senner is concerned about the effect of oil development on the
migratory bird population that summers on the North Slope, a
population that fans out and migrates to all 50 states. "Oil
development and its attendant infrastructure fragments and
degrades the habitat for birds," Senner says. "Oil fields also
attract predators that feed on nesting birds."
Drawn by scraps of garbage, populations of foxes, ravens, gulls
and bears have increased dramatically in the Prudhoe Bay area,
and Senner believes that has taken a significant toll on the
nesting success rates of a variety of birds. "In the first
Audubon Christmas bird count in Prudhoe Bay, in 1987-88, three
common ravens were observed," Senner says. "In the 2001-2002
count there were 75 ravens. That is only possible through food
supplementation and shelter provided by oil-field infrastructure.
In the summer months these same ravens will turn to more natural
prey, such as eggs and nestlings in bird nests. There were 117
snow-goose nests in the Sagavanirktok River delta in 2000, but
because of nest predation by grizzly bears, gulls and ravens only
three goslings were produced. That qualifies as near total nest
"ANWR's lowland tundra, freshwater wetlands, coastal marshes,
barrier islands and lagoons are key parts of the larger Arctic
ecosystem that makes the refuge unique as a protected area in the
United States. It would be a terrible blow if they opened up ANWR
to drilling. That's an irreplaceable treasure."
One man's "irreplaceable treasure" is another man's opportunity
lost, and drilling proponents point out that of the 19.6 million
acres in the refuge, oil development would be limited to just
2,000 acres of the coastal plain--one tenth of one percent. This
is the "smaller footprint" that oil interests have said should
make drilling in the refuge palatable. "Most of us live up here
because we appreciate the environment," says Mark Myers, director
of the state's Division of Oil and Gas. "I don't think people are
familiar enough with how far drilling has come in the past five
or 10 years. This won't look anything like Prudhoe Bay."
Technological advances such as horizontal drilling, winter-only
exploration and ice roads instead of gravel roads have made
modern oil-field development less of a blight on the landscape
than the Prudhoe Bay complex. But those who want to keep the
refuge a wilderness area say that a 2,000-acre footprint is still
a footprint. And, as Athan Manuel, who directs the Arctic
Wilderness campaign for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group,
points out, "the 2,000-acre limit they've proposed doesn't
include pipelines and roads. It's a spider web of development."
Arguments that ANWR oil will reduce U.S. dependency on foreign
oil hold little water. Last year the U.S. consumed seven billion
barrels of oil. Fifty-two percent of that--more than ANWR's entire
economically recoverable reserves--was imported. Put another way,
3.2 billion barrels from ANWR represent only about a 166-day
supply of crude for America's gluttonous consumption. Amory and
Hunter Lovins estimate that if the refuge were opened to drilling
and truly contained 3.2 billion barrels of economically
recoverable oil, it would yield 156,000 barrels of gasoline a
day, enough to run 2% of the cars and light trucks in the U.S.
That much gasoline, however, could be saved if automobiles were
made more efficient by just four tenths of a mile per gallon. If
automobiles, SUVs and light trucks became four miles per gallon
more efficient, it would be equivalent to developing an oil field
10 times the size of ANWR.
"The proponents of drilling have a difficult argument to win,"
says Representative Markey, whose provision calling for increased
fuel efficiency from 24 to 27 miles per gallon within five years
was defeated in the House last August. "They're saying we should
drill in a pristine preserve, but it would be wrong to ask the
automobile companies to increase fuel efficiency by three miles
"This is an ideological debate," says Deborah Williams, head of
the Alaska Conservation Foundation and a former special assistant
to Bruce Babbitt, the Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton
Administration. "I'm in favor of responsible oil and gas
development, but not when you're violating our stewardship of
wilderness for future generations."
But most Alaskans, like many rural Americans, chafe at the
"stewardship" of the federal government. It's easy to pontificate
from Washington, D.C., thousands of miles away from reality. "Is
drilling in ANWR going to screw up the wildlife?" one Alaskan
oilman asks. "Who knows? But isn't that a decision for the
residents to make?"
This is the pro-drilling faction's trump card. The people who
live inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Inupiat
Eskimo, are in favor of drilling for oil.
The Inupiat live in Kaktovik, on Barter Island, a tiny spit of
land in the Beaufort Sea, a mile off the 1002 Area. Like the
Gwich'in, the Inupiat have traditionally depended on hunting and
fishing for their food. In recent years they've also depended on
groceries, since there are now three small convenience stores in
Kaktovik. But hunting and fishing remain deeply rooted in their
culture, and the highlight of the year for the village is the
migration of bowhead whales past the island in early September.
Most years the village is allowed to harvest three of these
magnificent creatures, which reach 40 feet in length. Boats set
out for the hunt, their crews armed with handheld harpoons. The
entire town shows up on the beach to help with the butchering,
and the meat is divided according to time-honored traditions: The
harpoonist credited with striking the whale first gets the front
flipper, and the captains of the boats get their portions. Then
everyone gets a piece of the muktuk, or skin, which is fried with
blubber attached and eaten like snack food.
No part of the whale is sold, but much of it is no longer used.
The blubber, once valued as a source of lamp oil, is hauled away
with the carcass to be consumed by scavenging polar bears. Last
year more than 40 polar bears were seen feeding on a carcass, and
for the first time anyone could remember they were joined by
grizzlies that had walked across the pack ice from the mainland.
The two species eyed each other warily as they picked the carcass
clean, seeming to conclude that there was plenty for both if they
So it once was with the Inupiat Eskimo and the Gwich'in Indians:
They were both on the same side of the oil-development issue in
1978. That year the North Slope Borough, a regional council
overseeing the affairs of the seven Native American villages on
the North Slope (including Kaktovik but not Arctic Village),
passed a resolution opposing oil development in the calving
grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. In 1979 the city council
of Kaktovik joined the Gwich'in Nation in supporting a bill
directing the U.S. government to expand the refuge and protect it
from development forever. Since then the Inupiat have changed
their tune. Tax revenue generated by Prudhoe Bay oil has
significantly raised the standard of living in the native
villages, not least Kaktovik, where per capita income has soared
to $46,250, among the highest in Alaska. Village homes, many of
them owned and maintained by the North Slope Borough, have
running water, electricity and oil heat. Kaktovik has built a
school and a community center and is building a sewage treatment
plant--financed, of course, by the North Slope Borough.
"The pipeline really changed things," says Walt Audi, a charter
pilot who first came to Barter Island in 1964 to do maintenance
on one of the radar spheres on the DEW line, a 30-day assignment
that has turned into a 38-year stay. "It used to take almost all
your time just to survive, collecting wood that had washed ashore
from the outflow of Canada's Mackenzie River. Subsistence
hunting. Carrying water from the pond. There was no plumbing or
electricity in the homes. Ninety-eight percent of Inupiat kids
had never been off the island."
Now a handful of them are going to college. Kids in town wear new
Nikes, parkas, Levis. But there's growing concern because as the
Prudhoe Bay oil reserves have begun to dwindle, so has Borough
revenue, says George Tagarook, the mayor of Kaktovik. Inupiat
residents of Kaktovik also own the surface rights to 92,000 acres
within the 1002 Area. So if Congress opens the caribou calving
grounds to oil development, it would represent a substantial
financial windfall for the people of Kaktovik for years to come.
At a price, of course. Instead of overlooking one of the most
unspoiled panoramas in North America, residents would be looking
at a massive industrial complex, with its attendant noise and
pollution. "I know it would be a disaster," says Audi, one of the
few Kaktovik residents who've spoken out against drilling in the
refuge. "If you don't mind looking out and having nothing but
pipelines as far as the eye can see, there'd be no harm done. But
there's too much peer pressure against speaking out."
"The whole village isn't in favor of drilling, but most are,"
says Lon Sonsalla, the former mayor, who breakfasts every weekend
at Audi's Waldo Arms Hotel. "There's a romantic image of Eskimo
life, running dog teams and killing seals," Sonsalla says, "but
the elders don't want to head back to the Stone Age. There've
been a lot of improvements since oil was discovered in Prudhoe
Bay. You've got roads that don't sink out of sight after a thaw.
Electricity. Telephone. Plumbing. Cable TV. I look up to the
elders. They've lived the hard life, and they're not interested
in going back."
If ANWR is not opened up for drilling, what would the future hold
for Kaktovik? "We talk about that a lot," says Sonsalla, whose
wife, Nancy, is Inupiat. "Tourism? After 9/11 we all know how
fragile that is. Native craftwork? You get back about $2 an hour
by the time you're done. We're talking about the future here, of
our children and our grandchildren. Sure there'll be changes in
the refuge. The hikers and kayakers and hunters will see the oil
fields and say that it's terrible. But they don't live here."
So there it is. Two ancient cultures, two indigenous peoples. One
the showpiece and pawn, if you will, of Big Oil, one the
showpiece and pawn of environmentalists. One trying to cling to
the past, one trying to escape from it. Both thinking of the
future of their children and grandchildren. "They all go for the
oil drilling in Kaktovik," says 69-year-old Dorothy John, who was
raised in Arctic Village. "But money is money, you know. It
changes your thinking. We don't have much use for money around
here." When she was a girl, Dorothy saw so many caribou that the
hillsides seemed to be moving. "In the summer of 1950 I saw 10
miles of caribou," she recalls. "They stampeded past the village
for two days. We don't see nearly as many anymore. If they put in
that oil field, I'm afraid the caribou will wander off somewhere
Trimble Gilbert, 66, is a village chief of Arctic Village. A
reflective, somber man who still snares wolverines in the winter
and tans their hides on the porch outside his cabin, Gilbert sees
the Porcupine caribou herd as essential to the Gwich'in, whose
name itself means people of the caribou. "I think we have to
respect those animals," Gilbert says. "The caribou, the sheep,
the moose are what's always been important to our culture. It's
been like that for thousands of years and will be like that
forever, as long as we take care of their land.
"I have some pictures of gold miners in the Klondike. The white
man has always been good at making money, and he came to that
country for gold. There are Native Americans in the photographs
with them. Maybe working as guides. I don't know. But I always
wonder, what happened to those people, those Indians of the
Klondike? They're not there anymore.
"We don't want to be like that."
THAT THE PIPELINE WOULD THREATEN THE HERD
TO KEEP THEIR WINDFALL FROM THE PIPELINES
THERE'D BE NO HARM DONE"
THE ELDERS DON'T WANT TO GO BACK TO THE STONE AGE"