ANCHORAGE — Environmentalists botched this fight once. Now they're missing the point again.
There is something just as important as oil to the future of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
I'm speaking of a road. And all the things that a road means, like campgrounds and gasoline stations and fast-food stops and "attractions." In other words, development.
Unless they rally quickly, environmentalists may lose the fight to save the Arctic from this destiny no matter which way the Senate votes on petroleum drilling in coming days.
I know this distant place beyond the cities and highways in northern Alaska. I worked there as a boatman, rowing adventurers down its wilderness rivers. I have hiked among its grizzly bears, wolves, musk ox, wolverine and nomadic caribou. I've written about it, talked about it, smelled the raw crankcase odor of oil in its tundra. I have ventured there in winter too, at 45-below with the northern lights smoldering overhead and polar bears pawing yonder ice.
I love it.
The 19-million-acre refuge is the most special place left in North America--a vestige of authentic wildness. If you're willing to huff, you can stand on a foothill and follow your eyes from west to east, from the Beaufort Sea in the north to the Brooks Range Mountains in the south, with nothing--absolutely nothing--to disturb nature's endowment.
It is a fragile, mythical land where the growing season can be as short as 54 days.
People need a place like this. A place where a human can feel small in the presence of grandeur. Where the mind has room to walk, as the Athabascans say. We need it just to know that such a place remains--out of easy reach, unspoiled. We need it because there is so little left. The untamed, after all, is our ancestral home.
But just outside the western boundary of the refuge is an elevated gravel road laid down atop the permafrost. And a broken promise. The "haul road," now known as the Dalton Highway, runs 414 miles from the Yukon River, beyond Fairbanks, more or less due north to Deadhorse--the squalid, pre-fab, industrial drilling capital of the oil on the North Slope. This road was built in 1974 for the sole purpose of hauling the tools, welding rods, lobster tails, filet mignons and other necessities to supply the oil workers at Prudhoe Bay, which lies in the plains to the west of the refuge.
When it approved construction of the Alaska pipeline across federal lands, Congress burdened the road with a sacred covenant: It would not be used to open the Arctic to tourists, hunters and other commercialization. A guard station would be placed north of Fairbanks and motorists without a permit turned back. When the oil was pumped dry, the road would be torn out.
It is important to realize that these Arctic lands were claimed as a national treasure. That is, deed was granted to the 284 million of us who are not Alaskans as well as the 634,000 who are. Over time, however, the federal government and then-Interior Secretary James Watt quietly ceded right of way to the road from all of us to Alaska. In 1995, the state summarily broke the old deal. It opened the road for the convenience of urban hunters and as a lure to tourists.
A few local environmentalists and native tribes objected. But most conservationists were otherwise occupied with what seemed, for the short run, to be juicier targets elsewhere: big timber in the Northwest, big oil in Prince William Sound, all the usual bad guys.
So today, an ever-increasing flow of RVs and hunters head north on the haul road exercising a right they should not have. In 50 years, that road will change the Arctic more than drilling ever did. The oil fields will be gone. But the road will be paved. There will be hunting lodges, restaurants, trinket shops, petting zoos and airfields for flight-seeing tours. Spur roads will be pushed deeper into the wild. Imagine the fun for off-roaders. Hunters will fan out over hundreds of miles to ambush the migrating caribou herds, along with the wolves and grizzly bears that follow them. A mosquito abatement district will be established. Tourists will enjoy the splendor in an IMAX theater.
The Arctic will be like everywhere else: the province of concessionaires, traffic, noise, litter. Another place to get a window decal for the fifth-wheeler.
"Wildness ... will be lost forever," says Allen Smith, Alaska policy analyst for the Wilderness Society, and one of the few conservationists to grasp the long-term threat of transforming this supply road into a public highway.
I wish environmentalists luck in battling to keep the drillers out of the refuge. But win or lose, the upcoming showdown in Congress is a last chance to reclaim and re-close this road, and order anew that it be pulled out when the oil is gone. It's time that progress was held to its promises.