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Alaska Town Split Over Drilling in Wildlife Refuge

Brower has long opposed drilling but decided to speak out for the first time recently after his wife, Mary Margaret, started campaigning against oil development. A lover of nature, he said roaming in the mountains is "like going to church for me" and that the experience would be altered by oil rigs. Brower also fears that onshore drilling will spark offshore drilling and scare away the whales.

"It'll change their migration," he said of offshore drilling's impact on whaling. "It'll destroy our culture completely. . . . Just the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach."


At the town's post office, Robert Thompson, left, and postmaster David Tetreau examine Tetreau's new gun. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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This time of year in Kaktovik and on the coastal plain, it's hard to tell where the treeless tundra ends and the Beaufort Sea begins. Everything is icy and white as a result of temperatures that can dip to 30 degrees below zero.

Oil money that has already flowed into Kaktovik has helped transform it from a place where wood was burned for heat and melted ice was used for water. The town has a modern power plant, cable TV and a water and sewer system that was installed late last year. Some residents drive trucks. Some buzz through town on snowmobiles.

Years ago, Kaktovik was a seasonal home for the Inupiat. After World War II, the U.S. government built a radar site on the island that brought jobs and many permanent settlers, including some white residents. Many of those jobs have since been eliminated, and government is now the biggest employer.

Some still support drilling because they think development would create jobs.

Katheryn Aishanna, 18, a high school senior, said she wants to remain in Kaktovik with her family and friends but worries about a future with declining oil revenue. Standing in the school, where snowdrifts almost obscure the view from some windows, Aishanna said she was convinced oil drilling and animals could coexist.

"Oil is good," she said. "We need oil. It's a natural thing. If it's part of the earth, it's not evil. It was put there by God for us to use."

Some Inupiats who live in Kaktovik and elsewhere on the North Slope have an added financial incentive to support oil. Shareholders in Inupiat corporations could profit from oil development rights on 92,000 acres in the refuge if it is opened -- a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and a subsequent land swap with the federal government. Some of those shareholders have been lobbying to open the refuge.

Kaktovik has long had to battle the image that it wants oil out of greed. Its residents are often contrasted with Gwich'in people who live just outside the refuge and oppose drilling for fear it would harm the caribou, which is central to their culture.

Sonsalla, Kaktovik's mayor, said people who live on the island aren't looking to get rich; they just want to maintain their way of life. And he questioned how government services could be maintained without new oil money.

The mayor said it is hard to predict the impact of drilling on Kaktovik and its traditions. "Is it going to be a big mess?" Sonsalla asked. "I hope not. Is it going to benefit the community? Hopefully."


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