The Arctic Wildlife Refuge–Whose Land?

NWF   |   May 18, 2006

With gas prices climbing, oil executives hope that lawmakers will be persuaded to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling even though this action would not have any impact on the price of oil for the forseeable future.

One of the best books on this subject has been published by our friends at Sierra Club Books.  Written by an author well-known for his novels and stories, Rick Bass has also written a number of books on the natural world.

In Caribou Rising, Bass visits the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a hunter, as a writer giving voice to threatened wildlife, and as a deeply troubled defender of ancient Gwich’in culture against government abuse. “Each year,” Bass writes, “I become more ashamed and mortified by my government, and by the widening disparity between the people’s will and the secret practices, secret allegiances, of big business and government.”

This impassioned book details the real people and the real place behind a two-decade-long legislative struggle in Washington over the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The struggle is being waged by big oil companies against a few thousand Gwich’in people who have continuously inhabited the Arctic Refuge land for nearly 20,000 years, subsisting primarily on migrating caribou that thrive in the pristine landscape. At stake is an untrammeled coastal plain that provides critical mosquito relief during the summer for caribou and provides vital calving grounds for their reproduction. Viable caribou herds and the meat they yield are essential to the future of the caribou people.

Bass helps us to understand that the lives of those subsisting in Arctic Village, the Gwich’in base, will forever be changed by proposed legislation authorizing oil development in the fragile coastal Arctic Plain. He shares the compelling story of Trimble Gilbert, a Gwich’in Episcopal pastor who has served his people for more than forty years, preaching from a well-worn Bible covered with caribou hide. Gilbert warns his flock that “we are the last people. I hope you understand that. All the people with money are against us but we don’t want to lose our culture.” Giving hope to his community, Gilbert quotes, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Recent polls show that the Gwich’ in have been joined in this David and Goliath struggle by a majority of Americans, who are opposed to drilling in the Arctic. The Gwich’in have also been actively supported by hundreds of thousands conservation-minded voters who have successfully turned back several previous attempts by the oil developers to get a federal license to drill the Wildlife Refuge during the past decade.

Some may be put off by the way by Bass personalizes the struggle, blaming the latest legislative proposals on “young George Bush’s dreams of oil and old Dick Cheney’s relentless, nearly religious pursuit of those ancient hydrocarbons buried beneath a landscape so pristine and astounding as to seem like the initial creation itself.”

But the issues involved in this conflict transcend party affiliation and the familiar divisions between Left and Right, liberal and conservative. In many ways this struggle over the caribou land is a test of American values and character. We all know the price of gas at the pump, but do we understand the true costs of oil development?  Are we as a nation of energy consumers willing to restrain ourselves by driving more fuel-efficient cars to keep the core caribou calving area free of damage caused by the well drilling and oil transport?  Must the legitimate and age-old rights of a few be trampled to make our highways cheaper for gas guzzlers twenty years from now?

There will likely be another vote on Arctic this year– possibly as early as next week in the House.  The House has been aggressively pursuing a number of energy initiatives to give appearances that they are working to lower prices at the pump Including an Arctic drilling bill. There have been some reports that this will be a stand alone bill brought up next week and other reports that it will be part of a larger energy package sometime in June during “Energy Independence Week.”

Any calls or e-mails to your lawmakers in opposition to such a plan before such a vote would be very helpful.  Bass concludes his book with these words: “Year by year, in Congress, the debate rages, being cleaved and decided always by only one or two votes—like wild animals fighting over tendrils, ligaments, scraps.”