The battle to protect Alaska’s great wildlife sanctuary

As Barack Obama opens up the Arctic Ocean to oil drilling, how can this pristine wilderness withstand the human hunger for fossil fuels?

At midnight on 29 June, the sun was directly north and well above the hills. It had not gone down since I arrived in the Arctic, three days earlier, and would not set for weeks. It rolled around the sky like a marble in a bowl, sometimes behind clouds or mountains or the smoke of the three or four hundred wildfires somewhere south of us, but never below the horizon. The midnight sun made the green hilltops glow gold, and lit our walk through the wildflowers and the clouds of mosquitoes to the mountaintop.

Down below, I could see our tents, our camp kitchen, tiny from the heights, and our two rafts, all along the sandy beach and flowery grass bench alongside the shallow Kongakut River. A few days earlier, a couple of bush planes had dropped off our group of nine for a week’s journey 65 miles down the river that threads its way from the Brooks Range of mountains to the northern coast of Alaska.

Ours was not one of the great ascents of history, but my companions and I were exhilarated by the beauty of the place and by the unusual feeling of hiking at midnight. We climbed high enough to be able to see over the rough treeless ranges to the Arctic Ocean and the coastal plain where we were headed. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a remote fastness, separated from the rest of Alaska by the Brooks mountains across its southern perimeter, and numerous rivers winding down through the foothills and across the northern coastal plain to the Arctic Sea. It is a huge place where caribou, musk ox, wolves, bears and other wild creatures live pretty much as they always have.

As we travelled slowly north at the speed of the Kongakut River’s currents and our own paddling, Shell was sending a drilling rig to the Arctic Ocean. On 16 June, the company’s massive rig, the Polar Pioneer, had broken through a blockade of valiant activists in kayaks outside Seattle – the kayaktivists – and was being towed up the coast. It was expected to begin drilling by 24 July.

We were guests of the Sierra Club, the world’s oldest environmental group, whose experts had brought us at this critical juncture to experience this remote, fragile, pristine place during the new round of conflict over its fate. On 3 April, the Obama administration had announced a plan to recommend wilderness status for the most embattled parts of the ANWR, a move that would forever ban oil extraction from that land. However, on 17 August, with winter fast approaching, the administration gave Shell a permit for exploratory drilling just off the north coast of Alaska. This first drilling site was hundreds of miles to the west of the refuge, but oil spills travel. It was an ominous step for the future of the American Arctic. Next week, president Obama will visit Alaska, where he will address Arctic leaders on climate change. Somehow he will have to justify the administration’s decision to let Shell start drilling.

Drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea poses layers of threat. The industrialisation of a wild place – noise, bustle, roads, industrial equipment on a grand scale, toxic chemicals – would cause a level of damage that scientists and environmentalists consider unacceptable. Chances of an oil spill from any wells dug beneath these seas are high, and cleanup is a reassuring misnomer rather than a practical reality in these cold, rough waters. Oil-spill cleanups are considered successful if they remove a modest percentage of the oil. Twenty-six years after the wreck of the oil tanker the Exxon Valdez in southern Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the wildlife and the fishing community there have not recovered from being drenched in dirty crude oil. A quarter of a million birds died in that disaster.

We know that a viable future for the biosphere depends on leaving most of the known reserves of fossil fuel in the ground, so finding treacherous new locations from which to extract what activists call extreme oil, does not just tempt fate – it punches fate in the face. There is an ugly irony about extracting oil from one of the places already threatened by the effects of burning fossil fuel – where the summer ice is much reduced and temperatures are shooting up: you make the place complicit in its own destruction.

The refuge is as real as the bright wildflowers at our feet that glorious night and the clouds of mosquitoes buzzing around our heads, as tangible as the caribou that migrate through it annually to give birth on the coastal plain before they return to their winter homelands in Canada. But it is also a symbol. It stands for the idea that we do not need to devour everything, that some places can remain free and wild, that they do not need to be dominated by human beings or ravaged by our ravenous hunger for fossil fuel.

* * *

In 1960, just as Alaska was attaining statehood, President Dwight D Eisenhower signed an order to set aside one wild corner of the region in perpetuity, excluding it from certain kinds of private development and exploitation. The nearly 9m acres became part of the vast lands that the US Fish and Wildlife Service manages; protection of wildlife was a principal goal, although the land was not given nearly the kind of protection that national parks get. In 1980, the protected area was doubled and given the name “refuge”. The Republican party and the petroleum companies for which it stands have long been demanding drilling on that coastal plain – the great expanse of tundra we were approaching on our journey, the plain that shone pinkish gold when we saw it from afar.

Arctic coastal plain
‘A bill to protect the coastal plain has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1986.’ Photograph: Fitz Cahall

The coastal plain is also known as the 1002 area (a reference to section 1002 of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act). The 1002 zone, comprising 1.5m of the arctic refuge’s 19m acres, does not have the protected status of the surrounding area and is vulnerable to exploitation if environmentalists lose the battle to protect it. The 1980 act laid the ground for the battles that have raged since. Although advocates for drilling in the refuge have claimed that the oil industry would bring economic benefits to the region, Republican figures about how much oil and how many jobs would be created are wildly exaggerated.

A bill to protect the coastal plain has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1986. Legislation to open the place to drilling was moving through Congress in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil spill stalled it. Bills to drill were introduced and blocked in 1991 and 1995. Exploiting the area was a key goal of the George W Bush administration, and huge battles over it were fought in the House and Senate during the Bush years. There were filibusters, dramatic speeches, shouting matches, monumental sulking by the Alaska delegation, and even the controversial moving of an exhibition of ANWR photographs by Subhankar Banerjee at the nearby Smithsonian to a less prestigious location after Senator Barbara Boxer held up the images to show the place’s beauty and vibrant wildlife. One critic noted that Banerjee’s lush colour photographs undermined then-secretary of the interior Gale Norton’s assertion that this place is “a flat white nothingness”.

The refuge is the great sacrificial beast at the altar of the cult of petroleum. As the former house majority leader Tom DeLay put it in 2001, once this great symbol is gone, “We feel very, very confident we will be able to crack the backs of radical environmentalists.” Drilling in the refuge would suggest that the fossil fuel corporations have won, and that nothing is too good, too pristine, too ecologically valuable to set aside from that pursuit. The state of Alaska has made its own stabs at opening up the ANWR to industrial development; a lawsuit brought in district court by the state to do so was fought by a dozen environmental groups and rejected by the judge on 21 July of this year.

Climate change is already disordering this place in countless ways: thawing permafrost and vanishing sea ice are radically changing the very surface of land and sea, while the wildfires that break out in Alaska’s rapidly warming weather are increasing. Almost 400 fires scorched Alaska in June of this year, the worst month on record for fire in the state, with 1.6m acres burnt. Some of the fires burned the forest floor itself – a deep accumulation of moss, twigs, needles, and other fuel – down to the permafrost, making that permafrost more vulnerable to melting or melting it directly.

We will leave the Age of Petroleum behind. Whether we do so willingly and in time to limit the devastation of climate change, or only after all the carbon in the depths of the earth has been extracted, burned, and returned to the upper atmosphere, is what the fight is about.

* * *

The southern border of the refuge curls around Arctic Village, where we stopped to refuel. Its scatter of brightly coloured little houses, a community centre, general store, and lots of free-roaming dogs constitutes the political and cultural centre of the US Gwich’in tribe. A larger population of Gwich’in people lives on the Canadian side of the border, and the Gwich’in ancestral lands are roughly similar to the range of the huge Porcupine caribou herd (named after the Porcupine River). These hunter-gatherers have historically derived a great deal of their food and some of their clothing from these tough, magnificent animals. They, in turn, survived winters by pawing beneath the snow for fodder – until climate change began to bring freak thaws that melt the snow and then freeze it into thick, impenetrable ice.

‘Caribou survive the winters by pawing beneath the snow for fodder.’ Photograph: Eric Post/AFP/Getty Images

Most Gwich’in are ardently opposed to drilling in the ANWR and the Arctic Ocean, and this has set them in opposition to the majority of Alaskans, including other indigenous groups. Alaska is an economy based on mining and drilling, one where petroleum companies wield more political influence than any other group, and where residents receive annual cheques from the oil royalties – $1,884 last year. Some members of the coastal Inupiat community, the Gwich’in’s neighbours to the north, have supported drilling – or at least some Inupiat members of the isolated island town of Kaktovik off the coast of the refuge have.

As Dan Ritzman, leader of our expedition and the Sierra Club’s Arctic expert, told me afterwards, “The 250-person community of Kaktovik is in the uncomfortable position of being physically located in a place that matters nationally. This place is, for them, simply their backyard, and it is at times confusing and even insulting that people across the Lower 48 and beyond would care, and take action to decide how that land is managed. Some people in the community think drilling should occur in the refuge; and others think it should not be drilled. At the heart of the issue for this Inupiat community is the ability to participate in deciding what does or does not happen on this land. That part of the community is finding its voice more and more.”

The Gwich’in have been articulate about their opposition to drilling ever since it was first proposed in the 1980s. As Gwich’in leader Sarah James said many years ago, “The coastal plain itself is a birthing place for so many creatures that we call it ‘Where Life Begins’. Fish come here from the Arctic Ocean to spawn. Polar bears make their dens along the coast. Wolves and grizzlies and wolverines have their young here. And many kinds of birds from different parts of the world come here to nest.” Female polar bears give birth in their winter dens on the plain, and the Porcupine caribou herd comes here, to this place relatively safe from predators and insects, to give birth every summer.

In the city of Fairbanks, Alaska, the night before we flew to the Arctic, two Gwich’in leaders, Princess Daazhraii Johnson, and her brother, former tribal chair and current university vice-chancellor Evon Peter, joined us for dinner. They talked about their struggle to protect this place and what it means to pit yourself against most of the politicians and industrial powers in the state. As Princess Johnson put it recently: “A birthing ground is no place for a battlefield. Each summer up to 40,000 calves from the Porcupine caribou herd are born and nurse on the coastal plain of the refuge. Protecting the coastal plain of the refuge is about upholding our rights to continue our Native ways of life as our communities depend upon the Porcupine caribou herd to survive.”

* * *

In many ways, the animals are still in charge in the ANWR, or at least – in many of the encounters with the 250 or so species of bird and mammal in residence there – humans are not. White gulls dive-bombed us on the trip, seemingly indignant to see humans at all. A moose could trample or gore you – and Alaska’s irascible moose are the largest of their kind, standing upward of seven feet at the shoulder, the males sporting broad paddle-like antlers that spread several feet. In a willow grove near the Kongakut River, on our first day’s hike, we found a waterlogged antler that a moose had shed: it was staggeringly heavy and looked as though it might make a nice cradle for a baby. The strength of the neck that could carry the weight of two of these was impressive to contemplate.

Grizzly bears
‘Grizzly bear males weigh up to three quarters of a ton and, standing on their hind legs, tower high above a human.’ Photograph: Paul Souders/Getty Images

And then there are bears, grizzly bears, Ursus arctos horribilis. The males weigh up to three quarters of a ton and, standing on their hind legs, tower high above a human. Their fangs are thick ivory daggers; their claws, curved black stilettos. Ritzman told us about a pilot who recently had to shoot a bear at the very site where we were camping – the bear charged at him and he fired warning shots with his .44. That sometimes works but in this case it did not do much, so he shot the bear at close range. The huge slug did not kill it, but it did amble off after being hit. Ritzman mentioned that you do not want to shoot a full-grown grizzly in the head; bullets can ricochet off their skulls, which are up to two inches thick. His advice to us took the form of bear etiquette: if you are intruding on the bear, apologise and back away – but never turn your back. If the bear is intruding on you, look big, give a show of strength, let it know you are not an easy meal. We walked around that week cognisant that we were potential meals, easy or not. We were careful about going off alone and gave warnings – claps or shouts – when we went into the willow brush or anywhere else we might surprise a bear.

We saw a grizzly the first evening we spent on the shores of the Kongakut. Some of the members of our expedition were already in their tents when Ritzman and guide Peter Elstner saw a bear lumbering along the steep mountainside less than a mile from us. Through a spotting scope it was easy to watch the light brown creature meander in and out of willow clumps, sniffing for food, not in a hurry. As it turned this way and that, I was reminded that though the front end of a bear is formidable, the rear end, tail tucked into its hindquarters, is abject, almost apologetic-looking. The guides speculated on whether they would have to keep watch all night with Peter’s 12-gauge shotgun to scare them off. But when the bear began clambering down the slope toward the flat river expanse we were camped on, it paused, perhaps sniffed the air and us, then turned tail and loped off. I took that for, perhaps, youthful exuberance, but Peter thought it was a clear sign it had had a bad experience with humans and did not want another one. The guides were going to be able to sleep after all.

Though the wildlife of the place is rich, and though we saw dall sheep on a steep, stony slope, a tiny white Arctic fox at the end of the journey, bald eagles, hawks, common merganser ducks, eider ducks, arctic terns and various kinds of gulls, we did not see the caribou we had hoped for. This time of year, they are here in the refuge in huge numbers – the Porcupine caribou herd, now numbering about 169,000, migrates from Canada’s Yukon/Northwest Territories every spring to calve on the north slope, then returns with the calves to its winter grazing lands. We saw traces everywhere: antlers, other bones, hoof prints, dung, and once a great hank of soft, woolly underhair, part of the winter coat that a musk ox had shed. But the animals had gone before us, perhaps pushed onward by the warmer-than-usual weather.

Birds from all 50 states and every continent but Australia come to the refuge in summer; it is a major nesting site for migratory birds. This place is already changing as the climate does: new species are advancing north, ones adapted to earlier conditions are now in decline. Red foxes are spreading north, invading the territory and preying on the cubs of the smaller arctic fox. The old model of protecting the earth meant putting barriers around the most beautiful and the most ecologically significant places, making parks and preserves and refuges. By the early 1960s, the idea that anything could ever be kept separate enough to protect it had to be retired.

The effects of climate change in Alaska demonstrate that we must think systemically, that everything is connected. The Arctic is hard hit by changes caused elsewhere: Alaska is a capital of climate-change deniers but it is also a place that is burning, melting, and metamorphosing at terrifying speed. And when climate change unfolds in the Arctic, the feedback loops make it all worse. As white sea ice, which reflects sunlight and heat back to the heavens, loses area in the Arctic seas, the dark water beneath it absorbs sunshine and accelerates the heating of our oceans. As new heat records are set in Alaska, the permafrost melts. There are local impacts from melting tundra – buildings and infrastructure tip and tilt when once-solid foundations turn to mush, and the methane beneath the permafrost begins to emerge, preventing ice from forming on lakes. The emergence of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from the thawing north also has global significance. Climate change feeds climate change, and the far north disintegrates.

There was one species of wildlife we saw far more than we wanted to and that, until the cold end of our journey, we were almost never without, no matter the wind, the rain, or the smoke. Alaska’s most ubiquitous and least-loved wild animal is a droning grey insect hungry for blood. Humans have some options to avoid them – mosquito nets, protective clothing, repellent sprays – caribou have nothing but immersion in water and migration into the stronger winds and lower temperatures of the Arctic coast. The stings can drive them mad, and they lose a lot of blood to the insects. Mosquitoes are, on the other hand, a key food for a lot of birds. The warm weather and swarms of insects may have driven the caribou on before us. After we left the refuge, we met a woman who lived alone at a refuelling station who had, the day before, from a small plane, seen a herd she estimated at three miles wide and 20 miles long.

To the west of the ANWR is the massive infrastructure of the Prudhoe Bay oil-extracting region now run by BP. I saw it from the air; it looked like a behemoth of a factory that had been disassembled across a vast plain: pipes, roads, structures, vehicles. Prudhoe’s oil fields began producing in 1977, peaked about a decade later, and have declined in productivity to about 300,000 barrels a day. More than 1,000 square miles have been industrialised to produce the crude that is sent 800 miles along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to Valdez on the south coast. About 450 oil and toxic chemical spills occur annually.

Millions of gallons of industrial chemical and toxic byproducts stored on site mean that the place will never be pristine, even when the last barrel of crude has travelled down the pipeline. Prudhoe Bay’s industrialised landscape, with its factory-like structures, its hundreds of miles of pipelines, its 1,114 oil wells, its roads, and its residues, is a reminder of what petroleum extraction on land really means.

* * *

Alaska is remote and lightly populated; the ANWR even more so. No human beings live permanently in the refuge, and only 300 permits a year are granted for visitors, most of whom come for only a brief stay during the summer months. The state of Alaska itself is estimated to have more caribou than people. Its land mass is a little larger than France, but while that country has 68 million people, Alaska’s population is only about 736,000.

‘Alaska is a little larger than France, but while the European country has 68 million people, the state’s population is only about 736,000.’ Photograph: Fitz Cahall

There is something magical about being in the refuge. Imagine that you are hundreds of miles from the nearest building, the nearest road, that you are in a realm of no advertisements, no marketing, no commerce, no electronic communications, few machines but the tiny bush planes that drop off and pick up explorers, that all that bustle and distraction and racket and almost all the earth’s human population is to the south of you. You are entirely immersed in the luminous midsummer light that never stops.

We woke up the last morning before we reached the sea in a flowering meadow spreading west from the riverbank. Vivid blue-violet lupins, magenta fireweed, fragrant dark pink sweet peas and pale Indian paintbrush bloomed on the green ground. It looked like grasslands, unless you got down on your knees and saw how little grass was visible among the low plants, mosses and lichens – the food the caribou depend on. This Arctic prairie stretched on, low and level, far further than the eye could see. It seemed as though you could walk forever on it, or at least for days, until you came to the next river.

The evening we made camp there, some of the people who went out for a long stroll came back exalted, saying that it seemed like heaven, as though your deceased grandmother, your long-dead dog, your childhood friends might come up and greet you in that unearthly light, that endless openness. The flowery plain was scattered with caribou antlers: the delicate backswept branching antlers of female caribou, the sturdier antlers of male caribou, sometimes with mosses growing on the older ones. Near our tents, patches of the prairie had been peeled up by bears, but we did not see large animals there, just their traces. And then we got into our rafts and the morning of flowers turned into the afternoon of ice.

First there was a shelf of ice – aufeis, as Germans named it, or ice on top – that in the coldest places spreads out when a river flows and freezes. This process repeats over and over, the ice damming the water behind it so that more and more of it spreads further and further, creating a plateau of ice far beyond the riverbanks. We floated on our small rafts by a single shelf of it – startling to see in what looked like a summer landscape – and then were surrounded by high walls of white and pale blue ice on either side of the shallow river. A mile or two into this new realm, Ritzman and Elstner pulled the rafts onto gravel bars and we got out in our high rubber boots to explore, sloshing through the clear, chilly water.

In some places, ledges of ice had been undercut by the flowing water and they sometimes fell off, crashing like thunder. In others, surface melt carved meandering streams that flowed in curving little beds, darker against the white ice, then formed waterfalls as they fed the river. Sometimes the ice cracked, and some of the cracks were blue within. That blue! It is a cold, pale, otherworldly colour, an ethereal turquoise, as cold as cold blue can be. We were now in the deep Arctic, the blue, grey and white world, the unearthly earth, the place so northern that this world of winter ice had survived into midsummer. Everyone was exhilarated to have arrived.

Arctic fox
‘A small white Arctic fox fled us toward the eastern end of the sandbar.’ Photograph: Gregory Tervel/AFP/Getty Images

Some of us stayed up most of the night to see what the sun would do. It looked as though it was going to set, because it was a fiery red. A long streak reflected across the still water, though it remained well above the horizon. A small white Arctic fox fled away from us toward the eastern end of the sandbar. The thunder of aufeis breaking came from south of us. There were no seashells on this shore, but huge grey tree trunks that must have washed up the Mackenzie River and out to sea lay on the gravel sand, here where the only trees for many miles were low willows. I kept finding heart-shaped rocks at my feet.

It felt utterly peaceful if not entirely safe – it was too stark for that. Somewhere far south of us the Polar Pioneer was being towed toward the Arctic Ocean. A few days later, Shell’s icebreaker the Fennica was found to have a huge gash in its hull, caused by an underwater rock, and sent back to Portland, Oregon, for repairs, where it too was blockaded, this time by climbers who suspended themselves on ropes across the channel, then by kayakers, and finally by a few passionate swimmers who threw themselves in on the spur of the moment. The Fennica is supposed to be critical to addressing an oil spill, except that it had already proven itself frighteningly vulnerable in the rough waters it was supposed to traverse. All that frenzied activity seemed far away as we walked along that beach at the end of the world.

This was not a comfortable or easy place, but it was a serene and exhilarating one. Even for those who will never visit these remote shores, the idea of them, the images of them, the knowledge of them, brings an expansiveness to the heart and mind that is tantamount to hope and faith. The value of places that let us dream big and coexist with the other species who share this earth cannot be measured.


August 27, 2015