In the northeastern corner of Alaska is a strange, polygonal-patterned plain that the local Gwich'in people call Vadzaii Googii Vi Dehk'it Gwanlii, or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins. At this cold ocean edge a caribou herd calves, polar bears den and millions of migratory birds roost. Snowy mountains come booming up out of the sea, surrounded by sandy spits and lagoons. The unscarred landscape turns and locks in your eyes. It looks limitless. It also happens to be one of the last places where we can cup our hands to drink pure water, gaze across a skyline uninterrupted by commerce and meet primeval nature. Congress, which calls this protected coastal plain the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, is close to opening 1.5 million of its acres to oil leasing. Pro-oil politicians, who travel north on weekend delegations to shake the hands of a few natives and glance at the tundra, often denigrate this alien-looking landscape to serve their agendas.
I've been going to the refuge for 20 years, and I know that the cold and bugs can blind you to the real value of the place, particularly if you're accompanying a congressional delegation keen to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Since Congress is now operating on a fast track that overlooks and seeks to subdue one of our greatest national treasures, the public needs to know what's really at stake.
Nothing compares to the refuge. Even while kayaking 1,700 miles across the Canadian Arctic, I could not find a landscape so spectacular. In the Lower 48, I have gazed into the Grand Canyon's depths, walked past Yellowstone's wonders, been bucked down several wild rivers and stumbled up the highest peaks of most states. But these are parks, surrounded by highways and encroaching civilization. The coastal plain remains our most remote, asphalt-free and undeveloped refuge.
In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt created the first national wildlife refuge, at Pelican Island, Fla. Congress quickly built on this, creating a chain of 559 more wildlife refuges from Florida to Alaska. The refuges were designed to protect migratory species and endangered wildlife, as well as offer citizens natural areas uncompromised by human civilization. ANWR is our wildest refuge, but it's not the only one with potentially exploitable natural resources. If we destroy its integrity, by placing oil derricks in its fragile heart -- the coastal plain -- we will create a precedent for opening up all wildlife refuges.
Advocates of drilling say that opening up ANWR would make America less dependent on oil imports and thus more secure. At best this idea is illogical; at worst, it's disingenuous. According to information most of us have heard, there could be 5.6 billion to 16 billion barrels (235 billion to 672 billion gallons) of premium "light, sweet crude" underlying the coastal plain of the refuge. Our nation consumes 7 billion barrels of oil per year, and even if the refuge provided the hoped-for 1 million barrels per day, the resulting 0.5 percent annual increase in domestic supply would not significantly lessen our dependence on foreign oil. At best, according to various energy experts, the refuge would yield less than a year's supply of oil for the United States.
If our lawmakers could find a week to escape their delegations by walking out into the wilderness, to really compare the so-called "ice desert" with the unsightly Prudhoe Bay -- west of ANWR -- they would begin to understand what we're about to destroy. While Prudhoe Bay has a completely different caribou herd, that herd has appeared to prosper; the oil fields do not monopolize its calving grounds. ANWR's coastal plain, however, is in the heart of the Porcupine caribou herd's calving grounds. Virtually every federal and private biologist who has studied these caribou has concluded that oil development is incompatible with the herd's survival.
Build even one drill rig in the heart of the coastal plain -- along with the inevitable gravel-pad-cushioned buildings and pipelines and the gas-flared, steel town that is an oil field -- and we will irreparably damage our greatest wilderness. The administration's claim that drilling will take only 2,000 of the 1.5 million acres of available coastal plain is flawed. The supposedly small "footprint" of drill rigs will, like that at Prudhoe Bay, be linked by roads, pipelines, machinery and aircraft that will steal the silence, dredge gravel out of the rivers, monopolize the view and dominate several million acres of wildlife habitat. To claim that nothing will be damaged is the same as saying there's nothing there to begin with. America's last wild corner will be conquered by an industrial oilfield.
To know what's at stake in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is to demand its protection.
Jonathan Waterman is a filmmaker and author of nine adventure books, including the recently published "Where Mountains Are Nameless; Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."