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In the Arctic Refuge, a Life Force Hangs in the Balance

A lot has been written lately about the possibility of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This is hardly new. In 2001, as George W. Bush and his Interior Secretary Gail Norton were pushing to open up the Refuge, a photographer friend and I flew from the Canning River at the western edge of the Refuge to Prudhoe Bay. In 60 miles, we’d traveled from the largest protected wilderness area in the United States to one of the largest industrial complexes in the world, measuring over 200,000 acres.

Prudhoe Bay resembled Gary, Indiana in the 1980s, its giant stacks coughing smoke and fire. It was a stark reminder that wilderness and oil have long had an uneasy relationship in Alaska.

Although politicians and oil companies have been trying to get at the Refuge’s reserves for decades, their most recent attempt might be the most daring.

In 2017,  Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, long a proponent of drilling in the Refuge, stuck a provision in the tax overhaul bill that characterized oil exploration as a means to grow federal revenues. Although President Trump had entered office saying that he would “honor the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt,” one of our greatest environmentalists, he quickly praised Murkowski’s maneuver for opening up land that “for 40 years this country was unable to touch.”

For nearly 40 years, the U.S. government has determined that oil drilling would be incompatible with the purposes of the Refuge. Recently, however, the Department of the Interior has been moving forward with a plan to sell drilling leases as early as next year, fast-tracking complicated environmental studies used to identify and address potentially negative consequences of drilling, and bypassing the public review period.

Although the fate of the Arctic Refuge is a federal issue of national interest — a 2017 poll showed that 70 percent of registered voters nationwide opposed drilling — just one hearing has been held outside of Alaska.

The indigenous Gwich’in people call the coastal plain of the Refuge “The Place Where Life Begins” and consider it sacred land. We, too, can attest to its spiritual quality. In the summer of 2014, my then 16-year-old daughter and I joined two Alaskan friends and backpacked over the bare and rugged peaks of the Brooks Range and canoed down the Hulahula River to the Arctic Ocean.

As a father, and a lover of wilderness, the fight to save the coastal plain is a personal one. On our adventure across the Refuge, I saw my daughter come alive. I saw her trepidation transformed into excitement and awe. I saw that awe as we encountered two grizzly cubs, and again, later, when a bold polar bear came to investigate our camp. I saw it when we were awakened in the morning by the howling of wolves and when we scouted the Hulahula River, picking out our line through the big rapids.

For me, the fight to save the Refuge will always be about that trip with my daughter and the feeling we had each day that we were witnessing a life force up close, a life force that today hangs in the balance.

James Campbell is the author of Braving It (Lowell Thomas Travel Writing Silver Medalist), The Final Frontiersman, and The Ghost Mountain Boys, and the Co-Executive Producer of Discovery Channel’s The Last Alaskans.