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JOHN BALZAR

In a Dark Hour, a Place of Light

On the brink of war, a magical Arctic wilderness wins out over a bit of oil.

March 23, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

Whom do you want to believe?

Interior Secretary Gale Norton sees "nothingness ... and a 5% probability of 16 billion barrels."

Naturalist McGill Adams sees "plants emerging and a spreading rainbow of colorful blooms in every nook and cranny. Unimaginably, birds from four continents fly here to raise their young .... From under the snow, mammals pour into this land .... It is a good thing that the summer days are 24 hours long, for it can easily take that long to digest such a panorama."

Surprisingly, wondrously, my friend McGill won the latest round in the argument over the Arctic wild and oil.

At the most improbable moment, the U.S. Senate last week displayed the vision to behold this distant landscape as it's seen by Alaska's foremost Arctic guide, not as it's regarded by the Bush administration's custodian of our public lands.

On a vote of 52 to 48, the GOP-controlled chamber rejected -- yet again -- the push to plunder the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and open it to oil drilling, roads, processing plants and pipelines.

No, I'm not turning away from the urgency of war here. This is very much about war: the larger war of terrorism and how its uncertainties will shape our future. It's about the people who seek to exploit fear for narrow, short-term gain. And, yes, it's about how statesmanship survives.

Never was the moment riper for an assault on the refuge -- that epic, empty dogleg of tundra along the Beaufort Sea in northeast Alaska where the nation's values clash. Gasoline prices have soared. We have gone to war again in the Middle East. Republicans control both houses of Congress. And the president not only has made Arctic drilling his top energy priority, he has wildcatter's oil in his blood.

Still, a bipartisan majority of the Senate looked past the moment to the future. We can be grateful.

The Arctic coastal plain is one of the most remarkable of this nation's diminishing wild lands. It stands, not as a symbol but as a living signpost of what we are willing to forfeit and what we're not in these troubled times.

McGill Adams taught me about the place. With his tiny company, Wilderness Alaska, he has been guiding trips into the Arctic for a quarter-century. During two short Arctic summers, I worked for him as a boatman. We took tourists down the rivers of the Brooks Range mountains, north through the foothills, and farther north still into this plain, their eyes as big as saucers but still no match for the vastness of open space in which they found themselves.

"Life on this planet is cyclic -- inception, a spurt of growth, reproduction, bounty, retreat, rest and rebirth," Adams says. "Low-latitude landscapes plod through the cycle in measured moderation. The Arctic, on the other hand, accomplishes the same cycle in a reckless, chaotic binge, an explosion, a celebration ... magic."

What do you want to believe?

The profiteers and the self-interested Alaskans who are hungry for their annual kickback of oil fees call the coastal plain the definition of "Godforsaken." They see "a barren dump," and "an area that looks like the moon," and, yes, "a wasteland."

If that's truly how they perceive it, my only reply is that I have different eyes. I see it as Adams does. I see "magic," a remnant treasure of our wild heritage that should be banked, not cashed out.

It is not merely one small part of the larger Arctic refuge, as Secretary Norton argues. It is to the Arctic what the beach is to Southern California -- not a place apart but an essential component of the whole.

Alaska's development boosters have lapsed into bad habits. They mistakenly argue that conservation is extremism. They sneer at conservationists as "champagne socialists." They say that none of us should be swayed by emotional attachments to the land.

So just what should sway us? Merely the profit hunger of the champagne CEOs and those beholden to them? Or is that the real extremism?

By happy coincidence, on the same day the Senate voted in favor of preserving this remote refuge, a 70-year-old Presbyterian minister and philosophy professor from Colorado named Holmes Rolston III was awarded the Templeton Prize for global spiritual leadership. Rolston has been influential in mobilizing religious communities on behalf of nature. The challenge for humanity, Rolston said, is "using the Earth with justice and charity."

The writer Scott Russell Sanders conveyed it this way: "If you honor the Sabbath in any way, or if you respect the beliefs of those who do, then you should protect wilderness. For wilderness represents in space what the Sabbath represents in time -- a limit to our dominion, a refuge from the quest for power and wealth, an acknowledgment that the Earth does not belong to us."

In wartime, the things we cherish always come into peril. The Senate has given us hope to hang on to.

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