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In Alaska, Hard Times for Humans and Caribou

February 15, 1987|Kim Heacox | Kim Heacox writes on science, natural history and environmental issues.

EAGLE RIVER, ALASKA — Times are hard in Alaska. It's not just the winters that are cold and dark these days, it's the economy as well. Alaskans once optimistic about their future are now wearing the collective face of epidemic pessimism.

Long-timers up here say things have never been so bad. Overall unemployment for 1986 hit 11%, going as high as 25% in some areas. It was the second-worst year in the state's 27-year history. Nearly 10,000 people left Anchorage and "For Sale" signs are everywhere; bankruptcy is rising; state employees are dropping from the payrolls. Newly elected Gov. Steve Cowper has inherited a state budget with an $875-million shortfall. Gone are the good old days. The boom has turned to bust.

But isn't Alaska the wealthiest per capita state in the union? What about Prudhoe Bay, the richest oil strike in decades, and the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, an 800-mile technological triumph?

The black stuff still flows through the pipeline as it has for the last 10 years, providing about 20% of the U.S. domestic supply. And nearly half the reserves remain below ground. But a glut of oil on the world market has lowered the price from about $35 to $18 per barrel.

Oil, the panacea, has become an economic narcotic. The problem isn't a shortage of oil, or the price of oil, but oil period. Alaskans, those once resilient, imaginative people who had so little but believed in so much, are now the antithesis of their former selves. Admit it or not, they're oil junkies.

Polls show that three out of every four of them want more oil and they want it now , even if it means drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, right in the heart of the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou (named for herd's wintering grounds by the Porcupine River in Canada), one of the largest and most important caribou herds in North America.

Both oil industrialists and environmentalists see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a last hope. But that's where their similarities end. To the oil men, the refuge is a last hope for a big strike; to the environmentalists the refuge is a last hope to preserve the wildest corner of North America--the only remaining wilderness on the Arctic coastal plain.

The Department of the Interior estimates only a 20% chance of finding economically recoverable oil. There may be as much as 9.6 billion barrels, or as little as 600 million barrels--only a one-month supply at current U.S. consumption levels. Or there may be none at all. Arco Alaska Inc. wants to go in there and find out.

Why? National security, they say. America needs more oil to defray her dependency on foreign imports. And Alaska needs a shot in the arm to send her single-dimensional, yo-yo economy on the upswing. But Alaska state legislators, while refusing to introduce either a statewide income tax or sales tax, are lobbying to ship their oil to Japan. What kind of national security is that? And if domestic oil is so important, why has President Reagan resisted every congressional effort to curb and economize U.S. oil use, including, for example, further limitations on gas consumption of U.S.-made cars?

Arco Alaska President Harold Heinze feels he and his company can improve life in the Arctic. To many Eskimos, however, Heinze is nothing less than a 20th-Century conquistador bowing like Hernan Cortez at the feet of Montezuma, not out of reverence, but to get a better look at his golden sandals. He and his oil men bring with them white bread, soda pop, whiskey and off-road vehicles and tell Eskimos, who have subsisted off the Porcupine caribou for at least 10,000 years, that oil means a more prosperous future; that a better life is ahead.

Arguing that the roads he builds into the Arctic could benefit tourism, Heinze said in Anchorage recently, "This concept that Alaska needs to be preserved as wilderness for visitors is a crock. Most visitors want to have some reasonable access." But most visitors in fact do have "reasonable access" to most of America. There's no shortage of roads and highways in the United States. But the very absence of roads and highways and every other mark of man is what makes Alaska special.

Environmentalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wallace Stegner writes, "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed. Without (it) we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment."

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