- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

KAKTOVIK, Alaska Snug in their wolverine and caribou-lined parkas, the women laughed and chatted as they used traditional ulu knives to peel the skin from a 300-pound bearded seal, the first one killed this season.
Village children sampled bits of raw seal meat and a scruffy dog yanked on his chain as Fenton Rexford accepted congratulations on his kill, taken more than a mile offshore amid the blue-white pack ice of the Arctic Ocean.
"We haven't had much fresh meat this year. I didn't get a caribou yet," said Mr. Rexford, one of the best hunters in this community of 286 Inupiat Eskimos on the shore of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But, as head of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., Mr. Rexford has more on his mind than hunting. He is as versed in the economics of petroleum as in the art of hunting marine mammals, and he is well aware of the oil that may lie below his feet.
Drawing on his cigarette and looking out across the arctic reserve, he rattled off the statistics: Nearly $2 a gallon for gasoline in the lower 48 states, heating oil prices twice what they were a year ago and U.S. inventories at the lowest point since 1976.
With the United States more dependent than ever on foreign oil much of it from neighboring Canada it is incomprehensible to him that his people are prevented from drilling on the 92,000 acres of Eskimo land inside the arctic refuge. Oil, he said, is good for the nation and good for the Eskimos of Kaktovik.
"We don't even have sewer and water. We still use honey buckets here… . The future for these kids here is pretty bleak unless they let us drill for oil on our lands," Mr. Rexford said.
The lines are drawn here in an epic battle over whether to allow oil drilling in the arctic refuge. It is Eskimos vs. Indians, oil companies vs. environmentalists, and in this presidential election year Republican candidate George W. Bush vs. Democratic nominee Al Gore.
Some 150 miles to the south in Arctic Village, the Athabascan Indians of the Gwich'in tribe see it quite differently than Mr. Rexford. In their minds, oil exploration is a mortal threat to the survival of the caribou on which their people have depended for thousands of years.
About 30 Gwich'in last month completed a 10-day, 400-mile trek from Aklavik in Canada's Northwest Territories, much of it in open boats along the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers, to dramatize their appeals against drilling in the arctic refuge.
As she had at every stop along the way, Norma Kassi made an impassioned plea for President Clinton to cut off any possibility of drilling by declaring the refuge a "national monument."
"The coastal plain is the sacred birthing grounds of our caribou," said Mrs. Kassi, an activist from Old Crow, Canada, who travels the world lobbying to keep the refuge closed. "If that is violated our people will die. Caribou is our life."
A month after losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act, known by its acronym ANILCA. In a stroke, he set aside one third of Alaska protecting 104 million acres as national parks and national wildlife refuges.
Environmentalists hailed it as a monumental victory and ANILCA became the crown jewel of the Carter legacy. Most Alaskans each of whom receives a hefty annual bonus check from the oil industry refer to it as "the biggest federal land grab in history."
After 20 years, the anger has subsided. But the argument still rages over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area the size of South Carolina that stretches from the coastal plain to the forested south slope of the Brooks Range.
The "wildlife refuge" designation permits the harvesting of natural resources where that is compatible with the refuge's purpose, and many have been opened to lumbering and oil production.
Of the arctic refuge's 19.8 million acres, 8 million are designated as "wilderness," which means there can be no development of any kind.
But Congress, noting the possibility of major oil reserves under the coastal plain, included in the ANILCA legislation an item called Section 1002, which set aside 1.5 million acres along the northern coast for further study and possible development.
Until test drilling takes place in the region referred to locally as "Ten-oh-two" no one knows what is really there. But the potential is vast.
"The area contains the largest onshore, unexplored, potentially productive geologic basins in the United States," according to a Department of Energy assessment released in May.
At best, according to the 1998 U.S. Geological Survey and the May 2000 update, the preserve created by Section 1002 may hold as much as 16 billion barrels of oil equivalent to almost five years of total U.S. imports.
At the low end, the survey found the region could hold as little as 3 billion barrels an amount, environmentalists note, equal to only five months total consumption for the United States.


Oil companies and Eskimo tribes almost succeeded in opening the region in 1989. A bill was days from passage when the Exxon Valdez, captained by Joseph Hazelwood, hit a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of Alaska crude into Prince William Sound. It was the biggest oil disaster in U.S. history.
Although there never has been a major spill or leak remotely comparable in the North Slope oil fields or in the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline, public revulsion over the Exxon Valdez killed the bill.
In 1995, after Republicans took over the House, Congress passed legislation to open the refuge, but it was vetoed in the budget battle that led to that year's shutdown of the government.
Now, environmentalists pray and the natives along the coast fear that President Clinton in his final months in office will give the refuge another layer of protection.
The White House says there are no plans to do so. But many believe Mr. Clinton will use the 1906 Antiquities Act to declare the area a national monument, thus circumventing a clause in ANILCA that prohibits any new annexation of Alaskan lands without congressional approval.
The state of Alaska, native corporations and Congress already are drawing up plans for a court challenge if Mr. Clinton does take that step.
The environmental movement, which raises millions of dollars a year on the issue, is equally ready to go to court if a Republican president and Congress should move to open the refuge next year.
"The refuge is unique. It is the only place where three ecological systems coastal plain, the mountains and the boreal forest can be protected in so small an area. We've drawn a line in the tundra, if you will," said Adam Kolton, the Washington-based lobbyist for the Alaska Wilderness League.


To the Gwich'in Indians, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian government and more than 90 Alaska-based environmental organizations, the coastal plain is "America's Serengeti," akin to the vast game park in western Tanzania.
Some 129,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd normally spend six weeks each summer giving birth and fattening their young on the plain's protein-rich grasses before migrating back to Canada for the winter.
Deep snows in the mountains kept them out this summer. But the Gwich'in fear that drilling in the "caribou nursery" could permanently affect the herd, costing the Indians their livelihood.
"Development would destroy the calving grounds. The grass is nutrient rich and not found anywhere else. The herd would be decimated," said Joe Linklater, 36, chief of the Vuntut Gwich'in in Old Crow, Yukon Territory.
The area known as "Ten-oh-two" is about the size of Delaware and exhibits a stark and awesome beauty, framed by the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea. Its unbroken tundra is home to grizzly and polar bears, musk ox and millions of migrating birds, including tundra swans that winter in Chesapeake Bay.
It is frozen solid for nine months of the year and in near total darkness for 56 days each winter. In spring, it becomes an impenetrable, muddy swamp, and with the arrival of the caribou come thick clouds of mosquitoes and other biting insects.
Apart from Fish and Wildlife staff, Eskimos and environmentalists, it is not a place most ever choose to visit. Even the Gwich'in, for religious reasons, avoid what they consider to be "sacred grounds."


The Inupiat Eskimos say they are sympathetic to the fears of the Gwich'in but believe they are misplaced, noting that oil development outside the refuge in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, seems to have stimulated rather than stunted growth in the caribou herds.
The Central Arctic Herd has grown from about 5,000 animals in 1975 to 19,000 today. The Western Arctic Herd has increased from fewer than 100,000 in 1976 to more than 450,000 today.
Scientists cannot say why the herds have grown, but some speculate that the oil infrastructure has frightened away bears and wolves that traditionally take an enormous toll on the spindly legged caribou calves.
"Our people said the same things the Gwich'in are saying when they started developing Prudhoe Bay years ago," said Oliver Leavitt, chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. (ASRC), which represents 8,000 pro-development Eskimos. " 'There goes our way of life. The wildlife will go away. The fish will go away.'
"We were wrong. We found the caribou are adaptable. The herds grew. They used the oil pads to get away from the mosquitoes. None of it went away. We found responsible oil development is compatible with our traditional life."
But those opposing development argue that the calving grounds at Prudhoe Bay are vast, while the refuge's Porcupine caribou are squeezed into a 10- to 35-mile-wide area between the mountains and the sea, making it far harder for pregnant cows to avoid oil infrastructure.
Stephen Frost, a 67-year-old Gwich'in, pointed out that the Inupiat are traditional whalers who take their livelihood from the ocean, not the caribou herds.
"The Eskimos are against drilling offshore, which is the birthing grounds of their whales. The Gwich'in are caribou people. We understand they want to protect their whales. It is the Gwich'in responsibility to protect the calving grounds," he said.
Mr. Frost was raised on the banks of the Porcupine River and lives in Old Crow, a village of 285 where almost everyone fishes in the summer and hunts caribou in the fall. He said a family of four must kill eight to 12 caribou a year to meet their needs.
The Gwich'in acknowledge that four-wheel-drive vehicles, motorboats and snowmobiles have made the hunt much easier, and make no apologies for those who come home to a 32-channel satellite dish and a microwave oven.
"We are trying to strike a balance between technology and the subsistence lifestyle. We want the best of both worlds," said Mr. Linklater, Old Crow's chief.
Gwich'in activists, who regularly visit Washington to lobby Congress, have refused numerous invitations from Mr. Leavitt to visit the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and villages on the North Slope.
"The North Slope was the Third World before they found oil," Mr. Leavitt said. "We'd like to show them we haven't lost our culture and what oil has done for us, the schools and services… .
"But every time we get close to bringing them up, the environmentalists step in and the Gwich'in back out. They are afraid of what the Gwich'in will see."


The oil companies argue that new technology would allow development of the 1002 area with one-third the impact of developing Prudhoe Bay. The Alpine oil field, owned by Eskimos and operated by Phillips Petroleum, is considered the "small footprint" model for the future.
Based on the Alpine model, construction of the oil pads and drilling rigs in 1002 would take place in the winter on ice roads that would melt away in the spring. The pads would be serviced by helicopters; there would be virtually no activity during the caribou-birthing season.
The pipelines would be raised, as in Prudhoe Bay, at least 5 feet above the ground to allow free movement of the caribou.
"If there were an oil field under Washington, D.C., we could put in a single, five-acre development at the White House and get all the oil under the District and nearby Virginia and Maryland," said Ronald Chappell, spokesman for BP in Alaska. The oil companies estimate that opening the refuge would affect only 2,000 acres of its 1.5 million-acre coastal plain.
Pam Miller, an Anchorage-based biologist formerly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who now is a professional guide serving environmentalists and reporters, calls that disingenuous.
"That 2,000 acres is like a fishing net. If you hold it balled up in your hand it is small, but when you open the net it is spread out over the huge area, with pipelines connecting each of those pads," she said. "I don't think most people would call that a small footprint."
While oil company officials show off pictures of the caribou lazing around oil field structures and grizzly bears walking on pipelines, even at its best Prudhoe Bay is visually jarring, calling to mind the oil refineries along the upper exits of the New Jersey Turnpike.
"We never said there would not be an impact. An oil field is an industrial development. It would no longer be pristine wilderness, but it would be a small footprint," Mr. Chappell said.
Some accuse the Gwich'in of hypocrisy, noting that activist Sarah James of Arctic Village was a signatory to a contract authorizing drilling on native lands in March 1984, before it was found there was no oil in their territory. But Mrs. James said her critics are missing the point. "We aren't against oil development, only against development in the caribou birthing grounds," she said.
Canada, which signed a 1987 treaty with the United States committing both nations to protecting the Porcupine caribou, supports the Gwich'in position.
But critics say Canada the largest exporter of oil to the United States drilled numerous dry holes within the Porcupine caribou migration range before turning the area into a national park.
Canada has found oil just east of the park in the Mackenzie River delta, but officials hotly deny that they oppose oil development in the Alaskan refuge for fear of competition.
"That is absurd," said a Canadian official who declined to be identified.
"We support the Gwich'in because it is the right thing to do. We hope the United States will abide by its treaty obligations and protect the caribou birthing ground. The area should be turned into a national park."


Ultimately, said Mr. Chappell, "This is a value judgment. It is about energy or wilderness.
"The American people, who are oil dependent, and the Congress have to decide if the tradeoff is good. We've demonstrated that we can develop oil fields that are compatible with healthy wildlife populations."
Don Ross, a Fort Yukon bush pilot who has been flying over the refuge for nearly 30 years, said the area became sacred to him after he spread the ashes of renowned wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino over one of its rivers.
"It's a place where you can find spiritual renewal," he said from behind the controls of his single-engine Cessna 185. "This doesn't just belong to Alaskans. This is an American resource that belongs to all the American people."
But in Kaktovik, after praying for the whales and the safety of the whale hunters, the Rev. Isaac Akootchook, 78, prayed that his flock might see the benefits of opening the refuge.
"This is God's earth created for us to use," said the Presbyterian minister, who spent his youth herding reindeer. "We've lived here all our lives. This is our home. Outside people shouldn't come in and try to stop us from taking care of our home."

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