Last summer three friends and I had the rare opportunity to immerse ourselves in the rugged wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are no roads in the refuge, and very few people visit this “the Last Frontier.” Most visitors fly in by bush plane, and then camp and hike within the region. Others backpack in. Last July, my group flew over the Brooks Range and then river rafted through the North Slope to the frigid Arctic Ocean. For two weeks and 160 miles we paddled down the Upper Marsh Fork to the Canning River, then converging with the Staines River, to finally arrive at shores of the Beaufort Sea.
The Canning is an interesting river in that it forms the western border or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the vast, 19-million acre preserve that is North America’s largest wildlife conservation area. To the west of us lay the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, the central hub of oil extraction on the North Slope. On the east shore of the Canning the wildlife preserve begins.
In January, President Obama made big news when he directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to begin managing all of the reserve as legal wilderness – meaning no development will be allowed there, including oil development in what is called the reserve’s 1002 area, the section that oil companies and environmental groups have fought over for decades.
Naturally, environmentalists were thrilled with the president’s move. “The Coastal Plain is the wild heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is why Americans from all walks of life have advocated for its protection for more than half a century,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement at the time. “This Wilderness recommendation at last recognizes the wonder and importance of the region for Native cultures, wildlife, and anyone seeking to experience one of America’s last great wild places.” Oil companies and their political allies were, unsurprisingly, angry with the president’s move. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said. “The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska.”
Formal wilderness designation requires an act of Congress. And given the sort of rhetoric from Senator Murkowski and others, that seems like a long shot. Which is a shame – of all the public lands in the US, surely the Arctic refuge deserves full wilderness protection. As one of the very few people who has visited this unique land, I can tell you what a special place it is. An Alaskan Native people, the G’wichin, refer to the North Slope of the Brooks Range as “The Place Where Life Begins,” because the area is the calving ground of the massive caribou herds.
For two weeks, our group was surrounded only by the sights and sounds of wild nature – the rhythm of the river, sightings of caribou and Dall sheep, the seemingly endless expanse of the Coastal Plain, the buzz of mosquitoes, and the creaking ice floes. But the day before finishing our trip and flying back to Fairbanks, I heard something that sounded foreign to me. I was standing on a plateau of spongy tundra overlooking the Coastal Plain to the west. In the distance, toward the Beaufort Sea, I could hear the faint drum of oil drilling. It was a sound that made my stomach sink.
Chuck Graham is a freelance writer and photographer in Carpinteria, CA.