Saving the Last Edens

1. African Eden

2. Asian Eden

3. Alaskan Eden

4. Guns vs. Eden


As the Brooks Range crowds the coast, ANWR contains many arctic ecosystems -- and most of its animal diversity. Oil exploration -- but not yet drilling -- is allowed only in the "1002 area."
Courtesy Fish & Wildlife Service


Arctic extravaganza
Coastal plain and foothills both narrow as the Brooks Range nears the coast.As energy prices rise, oil-hungry eyes are returning to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) -- a 19-million-acre reserve on the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. Geological Survey says the permafrost conceals several billion barrels of oil.

The amount that can be recovered depends on the price of oil, but 3.2 billion barrels -- which could profitably be extracted at $20 per barrel -- equals less than six months U.S. consumption.

Pro-drilling folks argue that a few billion barrels of oil would cut dependence on foreign supplies, and that careful drilling would not unduly disturb the caribou, muskoxen and polar bears in the refuge.

Environmentalists say the area hosts one of the largest migration of mammals in North America; that the refuge may be the continent's last Earthly Eden. Drilling, they say, would amount to sacrilege.

Why should anybody care about a trackless, roadless tundra fronting a frozen ocean?

Geography, geography, and geography
The answer lies in ANWR's isolation.

ANWR gets 24-hour daylight in summer, sparking a flush of intense vegetative growth that feeds a wealth of wildlife. Because the mountains of the Brooks Range are close to the ocean, ecosystems are compressed, attracting wads of wildlife. There's no development of any sort in the refuge -- yet.

Black with white backs and large, curving horns, three muskoxen stand on the tundra. A lake is in background.Muskoxen were all killed in the Arctic Refuge a century ago by hunters. After being reintroduced in 1969, about 350 now live there. Muskoxen form a circle for protection, with their ominous horns pointing toward predators.
Courtesy Fish & Wildlife Service

Drilling in the refuge has become an early test of strength between environmentalists and the Bush Administration. "Within our country, there's really no place that's more wild," says Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (of which the author is a member). "It's the last great wildlife pageant left in America, comparable to the buffalo herds of the Great Plains that our ancestors unfortunately killed off."

"The coastal plain been called America's Serengeti," says Clusen, largely due to the 129,000-member Porcupine River caribou herd.

These animals migrate 350 miles in spring and summer to the coastal plain to give birth and chow down.

Caribou are no dummies: they seek high spots, where the wind may drive off mosquitoes. The little whiners can suck a quart of blood in a week.

You read it right: Even Eden got skeeters!

Birds of paradise
Thousands of snow geese resemble a white cloud over a maroon landscape dotted with lakes.
Snow geese are only in it for the nutrition. Dense stands of cottongrass fuel their 1,200-mile trip to wintering grounds.
Courtesy Fish & Wildlife Service

ANWR is also critical to birds. Clusen says the area is a "focus where the Eastern, Midwestern, Rocky Mountain and Pacific flyways come together." Birds also migrate from Australia, South America, and Europe to breed, eat and swat mosquitoes during ANWR's brief, intense summer festivities.

The snow goose, for example, migrates from California and Mexico, where it puts on weight for the arduous trip back south. Feeding as much as 16 hours a day, it will increase its body fat by 400 percent in two or three weeks, proving that while the refuge is empty much of the year, the summer feeding frenzy remains critical to its many inhabitants.

Several dozen animals graze in foreground on a sloping, tawny green landscape.Part of the immense Porcupine River caribou herd at the Arctic Refuge.
Courtesy Fish & Wildlife Service

While ANWR's oil has long attracted attention, the recent surge of interest dates to a higher estimate of oil reserves issued in 1998.

The threat, obviously, is that oil drilling -- even using slant drilling technology -- will disturb wildlife in the fragile Arctic. "There are thought to be 35 places where oil may have collected under the coastal plain," says Clusen. "That means 35 or more drilling pads," along with warehouses, shops, housing" and roads. He says caribou have shunned areas of intense oil development in Prudhoe Bay, west of the refuge.

We won't enter the political quagmire over drilling in ANWR (as we write, oil drilling in the Refuge passed a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives), but refer you to arguments pro and con.

Ironically, while the Bush Administration favors drilling at ANWR, the wildlife refuge system was started in 1903 by Republican president Teddy Roosevelt. Dwight Eisenhower, another Republican president, established the refuge now called ANWR, in 1960.

When African loggers get hungry, chimpanzees get eaten.



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