The Other Arctic
When most Americans think of the wildlife on Alaska's North Slope, they think of the beleaguered, 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But if they look to the west, they will see another vast wilderness--also teeming with birds, bears, and caribou. Best of all, they can help save it.
Barely 10 feet above the golden, hay-scented tundra, a yellow-billed loon streaks into view from the east. Ten pounds of flesh and feathers hurtles by at 60 knots, head low and headlong in loon flight, ivory-colored bill aglow in the Arctic sun. I can hear its rapid wing beats slice the morning air as it jets over a pair of loons I've been watching. In response, the larger of the two stretches its neck horizontally over the water and issues an urgent yodel, penetrating and surprisingly loud.
Defiant and defensive, this is the territorial call given by males declaring their home lake off-limits to other loons in order to protect their family and food resources--the whitefish, char, and blackfish that live beneath them. What may sound to the uninitiated like a mad, otherworldly screech is not. "The loon's song is the voice of the earth," an Inupiaq elder once told me. "They speak for this land."
Mention Arctic wildlife and most people imagine an area on the eastern end of Alaska's North Slope: the beleaguered Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But to the west of Prudhoe Bay there's an additional 23 million acres of unsung wilderness: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. It's even larger than the Arctic refuge, teeming with wildlife--and in need of your help.
Though the reserve's name makes it sound like a giant oil tank waiting to be tapped, it holds much more. This western Arctic wilderness, the largest federal holding in the United States--the reserve is the size of Indiana--is home to hundreds of thousands of caribou; grizzlies and wolves in numbers long ago erased from the Lower 48; and skeins of pintails and long-tailed ducks, Pacific black brant, tundra swans, king eiders, and white-fronted geese lacing the spring and autumn skies. Now and then a surreptitious wolverine, too lanky and long-legged to be a bear, appears in the low rays of the midnight sun. From the river bluffs hundreds of falcons and eagles take wing. And on the reserve's fringes, where it slips under the Beaufort Sea to the north and the Chukchi Sea to the west, it is refuge to seals and birthing belugas and the terrestrial domain of polar bears--icon of the North--swimming in from the retreating sea ice. A bleak and empty land suited only for oil development? No way.
Thirty-five years ago Congress mandated that "maximum protection" for the reserve's fish, wildlife, and other natural "surface values" be balanced against any energy exploration and development. The reserve was even considered for national wildlife refuge status. The 1976 act further authorized the Interior Secretary to establish "special area" protections for regions of particular importance to wildlife, specifically Teshekpuk Lake and the Utukok Uplands (see map, page 87), for their rich waterfowl and caribou habitats. The Colville River and Kasegaluk Lagoon followed later for their own superlative and unique habitats.
But that "maximum protection" has never been realized. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations since Jimmy Carter, the reserve's wildlife has enjoyed only a series of localized and temporary protections.
The Reagan years saw the NPR-A's first oil lease sales. The George W. Bush administration sold the most; in 2004 alone Bush sold leases covering roughly 1.4 million acres and nearly blanketing the primary concentration of the reserve's yellow-billed loon breeding grounds. Two years later Bush attempted to lease the most critical and irreplaceable habitat around Teshekpuk Lake--in fact, everything but the lake bed itself. Audubon Alaska and five other conservation groups sued to prevent the leases--and won. The effect of the court ruling was to return the environmental analysis back to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which announced in 2008 that it would defer leasing the most sensitive goose-molting wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake until 2018.
The business of selling oil leases took a hit recently when the U.S. Geological Survey reduced its estimate of how much crude could be pumped from the reserve by more than 90 percent--from 10.6 billion barrels to 896 million (500 million at current market prices). As a result, oil companies gave up many of their leases, including most of those beneath the yellow-bills' primary breeding grounds.
Still, the tug-of-war between energy and environment is far from over. The USGS describes gas stores within the reserve as "phenomenal," and Alaskan politicians are eager to open the valve. A recent headline in the Anchorage Daily News read, "Alaska must be aggressive on gas pipeline, [Alaskan Senator Mark] Begich says."
Meanwhile, the hottest oil prospects remaining in the reserve appear to lie directly beneath the goose-molting area and caribou calving grounds next to Teshekpuk Lake. Although many leases have been relinquished, up to 28 exploratory wells will be sunk on Alaska's North Slope before mid-2012. In fact, this past October began the busiest winter for drilling new wells since 1969.