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2 Villages, 2 Views of the Dynamics of Oil

April 16, 2001|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KAKTOVIK, Alaska — To view the seismic divide over the future of America's last frontiers of wilderness, consider two young men who live on opposite edges of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Start with Berdell Akootchook, 21, who grew up in the Eskimo village of Kaktovik, population 293, alongside one of the nation's most promising oil reserves. Akootchook dreams of becoming a pilot, flying in oil workers and supplies during the boom that will catapult his village into the 21st century if the refuge is opened to oil drilling.

"I'm sure there'd be a lot of people who would want to work over there," he said.

Then there's Evon Peter, the 25-year-old Gwich'in Indian chief of Arctic Village, a town of 152 lodged on the other end of the refuge, in the foothills of the majestic Brooks Range.

Peter has no oil dreams. To the contrary, he is convinced that oil production will doom the caribou that pass like a moving carpet across Timberline Mountain every spring on their way to lay down calves on the Arctic coastal plain.

"The whole history of Alaska is of white people coming in for natural resources, oppressing native people and becoming rich," Peter said. "We are in a dynamic relationship with all other things: animals, land, spirits, us. If you have these things in balance, you're being human."

This is a tale of two villages and what could happen if Congress decides to open drilling on the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, alternately described as the most important of America's wildlife refuges and the nation's best chance of countering its dependence on foreign oil.

In a surprising way, these two remote villages, many of whose residents have never traveled farther than Anchorage, resound with much of the same debate heard on Capitol Hill, as America seeks to balance its escalating demands for energy against protecting what's left of its last, great wild places.

Policymakers talk about energy security, wildlife protection, economic development, global warming. In Kaktovik and Arctic Village, people talk about gasoline for snowmobiles that costs $2.60 a gallon, about a broken-down school with lead in the plumbing, about houses with buckets in the kitchens that serve as toilets; they talk about how to make a fine mattress pad out of a caribou skin, how to teach a boy to lay his first fur trap line, how the sea ice is melting back faster than it ever did before, how a grizzly bear sleeps on what's left of a caribou calf when he's too full to eat any more.

How sometimes when you squat down on the Arctic coastal plain there's so much natural oil oozing out of the soil you can pick it up with a spoon.

"Many people do not believe there is really a place in [the Arctic refuge] where there is a community hall, where there is a school, where there is a runway, where people actually raise their families and have hopes and aspirations for the future," Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) said during a recent visit to Kaktovik.

In these two communities perched on the very edge of the world, the one thing almost everyone agrees on is that no one here will have anything at all to say about what that future holds.

Kaktovik and Arctic Village are about as far apart as Ventura and San Diego, and yet in these contentious times they might as well be on different planets.

The Eskimos now living on the North Slope around Kaktovik and the Gwich'in Indians in Arctic Village and surrounding mountain villages warred in earlier centuries.

The Eskimos always have been seagoing people, living off seals and polar bears and the bowhead whales that glide past the Arctic Coast in the spring and the fall. Because of that, they are adamantly opposed to offshore oil drilling that might threaten the marine environment; but oil production in the Arctic refuge at their backs makes good sense to them. They have seen oil development next door at Prudhoe Bay, and they know about the land's ability to heal itself.

The Gwich'in turn up their noses at whale meat but live in perfected rhythm with the mysterious, wandering herd of 129,000 caribou that migrates between Gwich'in lands in Canada, through the snow-and-emerald peaks of the Brooks Range and, in the animals' birthing cycle, down to the tundra of the Arctic coastal plain. To drill oil wells into the calving grounds of the caribou herd, most tribe members believe, is to pierce the soft place that a Gwich'in thinks of as himself.

With Oil Came Changing Times

Forget the calendar. One day, the temperature is 16 below zero and the snow is blowing so hard you can't see across the street. No way to tell where the forlorn cemetery at the edge of town ends--a small line of crosses draped in frozen flowers--and the rough sea ice begins.

The next day, the wind stops. A pale blue bowl of sky looms over the coastal plain, and the sound of speeding snowmobiles can be heard all over town.

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