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.
You could drift down that splendid river for days, weeks, through the uplands beneath the tilting of eagles and the riverside bluffs, camping on the sandy beaches, exploring the dry and wet tundra plains, moving northward into the lakes where Steller's and spectacled eiders (both threatened species) and loons share their secrets. A few Arctic pilgrims have made this journey. Not many.
On the broad Colville River Delta, whose westernmost slice lies within the reserve, great congregations of brant and white-fronted geese and a well-studied scattering of yellow-billed loons raise their young. It is here on this delta that ConocoPhillips wishes to build a road, bridge, and oil pipeline across the Nigliq Channel--the eastern boundary of the reserve--to a new project known as CD-5 (Colville Delta Number 5). By entering the reserve with a road directly on the path toward those critical habitats around Teshekpuk Lake, the project would contradict a provision that was intended to avoid the needless construction of roads in the Colville River Delta. As much as a single road--much less a bridge and oil pipeline--would set the stage for more permanent roads and the industrial sprawl everyone promised to avoid. Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit first time around--rare for the Corps in these parts--though it's reconsidering.
If permitted, that road could precede the BLM's new plan, but hope remains for long-lasting conservation. When the BLM announced its planning process in July 2010, Audubon Alaska and four other conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, seized the opportunity to make recommendations for permanent protection strategies in both the four existing special areas and four proposed new special areas.
The proposed special areas would basically expand and complete the original designated areas. The Dease Inlet and Meade River Special Area, for example, would enlarge the Teshekpuk Lake area westward to include the full heart of yellow-billed loon nesting habitat and more of the spectacular matrix of lakes and ponds and tundra that fills every summer with waterfowl and shorebirds. Reaches along the coast would help protect polar bears and ringed and spotted seals. The southern Ikpikpuk River's bank-nesting peregrines and rough-legs would be covered, as would the Western Arctic Caribou Herd's migration routes through the upper foothills and into the mountains.
This is not an effort to lock up the reserve against development, say conservationists. Neither is it an attempt to prevent the region's oil from being drilled. Much of the reserve would remain open for drilling, including many tracts within special areas where it might occur under certain conditions or restrictions (including directional drilling to reservoirs beneath critical habitat). "Within an area the size of Indiana, it's entirely appropriate that there be key places protected and set aside for wildlife," says Nils Warnock, Audubon Alaska's executive director, "and the protection of wildlife and special areas was one of Congress's stated goals."
Pressured by Americans' agitation over gasoline prices and a push for greater domestic oil production, President Obama announced in May that he was directing the Interior Department to conduct annual lease sales in the reserve "while respecting sensitive areas." A sale is scheduled for this December. He is "opening up the reserve," some critics charged. (To the contrary, the reserve has been "open" for oil leasing to private companies since 1981. Nearly 6.5 million acres have been leased, though many of those leases have now been relinquished or have expired.)
While previous administrations collectively had attempted to offer leasing on all of the critical habitats around Teshekpuk, Obama extended protections during an August 2010 lease sale when he withheld tracts surrounding Teshekpuk Lake "because of migratory bird and caribou habitat concerns"--a conservation gain unparalleled to date. Whether Obama does so again will be determined this month when a map of the areas that will be open for leasing in December is made available.
At this writing, Americans still do not know whether the Interior Department will continue respecting sensitive areas and keep the land around Teshekpuk Lake off-limits to future leasing. Will the BLM's draft comprehensive plan offer sufficient protections within the special areas? Will it respect and integrate the newly proposed areas? The plan, expected in early 2012, will demonstrate this administration's regard for the conservation integrity of the reserve; input during the public comment period that follows will reflect the American people's.
"It would be tragic beyond imagination that this nation could trade the irreplaceable wildlife habitats in the reserve for what would amount to less than one month's worth of oil," Warnock says.
Even drilling every bit of oil possible in the reserve would not affect the price at the pump, drilling critics contend. The volume is insignificant, the oil would not reach refineries for years to come, and new evidence from Washington suggests that it is oil speculators and not supply volume that have caused gasoline prices to skyrocket.
The cost of gasoline and the political issues of oil leasing and conservation strategies mean nothing to the wild geese, the innocent caribou, or the rare yellow-billed loon. The politics seem far off even to me, here in the gathering golden light of an Arctic morning. In this primeval setting, it is the loon's song that will celebrate and defend its territory. But in a larger way, both the celebration and defense--in this case, stewardship--of 23 million acres of one of our nation's only Arctic ecosystems will depend upon the voices of humans, who also speak for this wild earth.