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Our largest wildlife refuge is also the most vulnerable

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is under threat from the Trump administration.

 

Chuck Graham is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a kayak guide for the Channel Islands National Park off the California coast.


The mighty North Slope of the Brooks Range in Northeastern Alaska mirrored something out of the movie Lord of the Rings as we rafted Class III and IV rapids down the Upper Marsh Fork, the Canning and the Staines rivers before reaching the frigid Arctic Ocean. We were on a 17-day trip through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, North America’s largest refuge, and also its most vulnerable.

There’s no denying the vast grandeur of the refuge. It is a rugged and breathtaking wilderness teeming with caribou, wolves and bears, not to mention Alaska’s state bird, the mosquito. There is no infrastructure throughout its 19.2 million acres, which have been protected since 1960.

Yet over the decades the refuge has repeatedly been threatened for the sake of its oil potential: the 7.7 billion barrels that supposedly lie beneath the tundra on the Coastal Plain. Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts, the refuge has always fended off its challengers, but this time seems different. The threat is picking up steam because the Trump administration and its allies in Congress are united in their determination to open this extraordinary refuge to oil companies.

Arctic summers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are short, but the days never seem to cease.
Chuck Graham

With three other people, I rafted beyond the snowcapped peaks of the Brooks Range. Suddenly we saw, spread out before us, the sweeping expanse of the Coastal Plain, where 130,000 caribou migrate and drop their calves each year. It’s also a vital nesting ground for thousands of songbirds and shorebirds. I vividly remember the first time I got a whiff of salty Arctic air while on the plain. We were only about four miles away from the Arctic Ocean, and we could smell the piercing rot of a caribou carcass, like a blow to the face. We didn’t think anything of it at the time; we just floated by. And then we ran into the one person always ensconced on the Coastal Plain every June and July.

“You missed a polar bear by four days,” he told us. This scraggly bearded wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the mind-numbing amount of shorebird nests on the Coastal Plain every year for those two months. “It was emaciated when it reached the barrier island. It spent three days gorging on that caribou carcass, and then it headed back out on the ice.”

Oil rigs in the nearby Beaufort Sea at Point Thomson can be just barely heard and seen from the refuge.
Chuck Graham
There wasn’t much ice to see. There’s no denying that the ice is melting as ghostly ice floes creaked and cracked past us, moving east to west along the desolate barrier islands. It seemed as if every predator on the Coastal Plain had left its prints on the narrow, gritty isles, as we saw a graveyard of animal carcasses mixed with caribou antlers, multicolored cobble and bleached driftwood. We could spot detailed prints left by polar and grizzly bears, wolves, Arctic fox, caribou and a myriad of avian species. I hated to think what the beaches would look like if oil companies were permitted to sink their drills beneath the tundra. This is also a place crucial to the survival of the Gwich’in people, who have lived here for untold generations and who depend on the refuge’s natural resources. 

Arctic summers are short, but the days never seem to cease. Sunset occurred around 3 a.m., the sun barely dipping below the horizon, followed by sunrise at 5 a.m. I would typically head out alone on a hike at midnight, walking across the spongy tundra and along the peripheries of tranquil, glassy, freshwater lagoons and ponds. 

My only company was a scruffy and curious caribou calf, a marauding Arctic fox, and several Red-necked Phalaropes and Dunlins foraging throughout the crystal-clear shallows. Pacific Loons, calling out qua-qua-qua and kwuk-kwuk-kwuk, could be heard clear to the Arctic Ocean. Most of all there was an intoxicating silence — that is, until my last night in the refuge. 

The Arctic air seemed especially clear, cool and crisp, the sky fluctuating between a wispy purple and pink, but my heart sank when I heard the faint thud of oil drills on the distant Beaufort Sea at Point Thomson to the west.

I dropped my pack and sat on a knoll overlooking an oval-shaped lagoon, concentrating on that troubling sound. It was well past midnight as I scanned the horizon with my binoculars. I could barely make out the sight of oil drills, the greatest threat to the otherwise pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but I could hear them. What would the sound be like if the Coastal Plain were opened up to massive oil drilling?

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.