Surely this can't be the place that has triggered a bitter, 25-year tug of war? A treeless, mosquito-infested plain squeezed between the Arctic Ocean and Alaska's 9,000-foot Brooks Range, the strip of coast in the northeast corner of the state is a boggy tundra that, come the spring thaw, sucks off hiking boots (or at least battles your feet for them) like some ravenous mud monster. Crisscrossed with gravel streambeds, it is most notable for scattered tussocks of vegetation that resemble bowling balls that have sprouted grass. But when the time of the midnight sun arrives, the reason for the long and bitter fight between conservationists and the oil industry over this no man's land thunders into view: a 129,000-strong herd of caribous, arriving after a 400-mile journey to fatten up on the cotton grass that will get them through the arctic winter. Most years they also give birth here, on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Bad choice.
Unfortunately for the caribous, under the tussocks and the bogs lie (depending on who's calculating) 3.2 billion to 16 billion barrels of crude oil. Emboldened by soaring gasoline prices, the oil industry and its supporters are calling more loudly than ever for drilling in the wildlife refuge. As Alaska's pro-oil Rep. Don Young says, "If you think billions of barrels of oil will stay in the ground, you're smoking pot."
Congress created ANWR in 1980. Of its 19 million acres, 8 million carry the "wilderness" designation, which means no roads, no mining, no logging, no development. Of the 125-mile coastal plain, which is 8 percent of the whole refuge, only 30 miles are so designated; the rest has been in the oil industry's sights from day one. In 1995 it persuaded Congress to pass a rider to the budget bill that assumed revenues from oil leasing in ANWR. But President Clinton vetoed it, citing his objections to oil drilling in the refuge. (That shut down the government for three history-changing days: with most White House employees furloughed, a certain intern met Clinton up close and personal.) Now, with the oil industry pushing hard for access to ANWR, the president is reportedly considering declaring the coastal plain a national monument before he turns out the lights on his presidency. That would be even likelier if George W. Bush, who like his father favors drilling in ANWR, wins in November. Last month, in a letter to Congress, Clinton called proposals to open the refuge to drilling "unnecessary," and said they "would do irrevocable harm to the environment."
Any harm would start with caribous. A pregnant cow tends to react to people, noisy machinery and vehicles as if they were a force field: she gives them such a wide berth that, scientists fear, the herd could abandon its traditional calving grounds. Because few other places offer the food and safety from predators that the coastal plain does, erecting the infrastructure of an oilfield threatens this largest of all border-crossing (Alaska to the Canadian Yukon) herds in the world. Some scientists worry that the yearly addition of 35,000 or so newborns will be severely reduced. Industry counters that oil should be called "caribou Viagra": the herd around Prudhoe Bay, 60 miles to the west, has increased at least threefold since oil development began there in the 1970s. And developers have also taken care to cater to the herds. When, for example, caribous started crawling under the Alaska oil pipeline, it was raised five feet to spare the animals a limbo-bar maneuver (not a pretty sight with a 300-pound beast). "The caribous have not been affected one bit" by oil drilling in Alaska, says Camden Toohey of Arctic Power, which lobbies for development in ANWR. "They're totally indifferent to the activity."
The arctic refuge is also home to wolverines, polar bears and hundreds of species of birds. The coastal plain is a linchpin of the ecosystem, serving as a feeding ground for birds fueling up for their migration south. "If you separate the coastal plain from the rest of the refuge [by oil drilling], you would lose significant numbers of some species," says biologist David Klein of the University of Alaska. "If you drill there, you're fragmenting the ecosystem." That happened at Prudhoe Bay: with hundreds of miles of pipelines, roads and drilling pads, it has become "a sprawling tragedy," says Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club. "Is that what we want for our public lands?"
Sen. Frank Murkowski does. The Alaska Republican has introduced an energy bill that would allow drilling in ANWR. The U.S. Geological Survey pegs the amount of recoverable oil under the ANWR coastal plain at 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels. That's enough to supply America's oil needs for up to 30 months. But even at gasoline prices higher than today's, environmentalists (also using USGS numbers) argue, only 3.2 billion barrels are "economically recoverable." That's enough oil for six months. But six months or 30, conservationists see it as a small benefit at a steep price. "The wild spirit of this place would be gone," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Fran Mauer. Although most Alaskans support oil development--it helps spare them state income taxes and sales taxes and brings each citizen an annual "Permanent Fund" that totaled $1,700 last year--some question whether an essentially permanent change to a pristine wilderness is worth a few years of oil. Sarah James, a Gwich'in Athabaskan who lives in Arctic Village, suspects that even the most environmentally sensitive oil development will disrupt the caribous' calving. "There is no technology in the world that is not going to disturb the caribous," she says. "We are caribou people. It is our spiritual connection. It is who we are." For preservationists like USFWS's Mauer, deciding whether to develop the arctic plain comes down to a simple question: "What kind of people are we," he asks, "if we destroy America's last great remaining wilderness?"