|November 13, 2017|
America's wildest place is open for business
|Several years ago a mapping expert pinpointed the most remote place in the Lower 48 states. The spot was in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, 20 miles from the nearest road. Roman Dial read the news and wasn't much impressed. To him, 20 miles --- the distance a hungry man could walk in a long day --- didn't seem very remote at all.|
Mr. Dial is a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, and a National Geographic explorer. He decided to figure out the most remote place in the entire nation. His calculations led him to the northwest corner of Alaska, where the continent tilts toward the Arctic Ocean. The spot lay on the Ipnavik River on the North Slope, 119 miles west of the Haul Road (otherwise known as the Dalton Highway), which brings supplies and roughnecks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.
Judged by miles, Mr. Dial reckoned, the place was six times more isolated than that corner in Yellowstone. So he decided to walk there. On the journey he and his companion didn't see anyone else for 24 days.
Their destination lay within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. NPR-A, as it is known, is the single largest parcel of public land in the United States. The reserve sprawls across nearly 23 million acres, which makes it larger than Maine or South Carolina or 10 other states. The reserve's eastern border sits about 100 miles to the west of the more famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Separating the two like a thorn between roses lies the industrial sprawl of Prudhoe Bay.
If the reserve still doesn't ring a bell, you're not alone. Even Google Earth doesn't know it, though the reserve is 10 times the size of Yellowstone. "It is the wildest place in America that you've never heard of," as one conservationist recently told me.
Yet the reserve deserves attention, now more than ever. The Trump administration has declared the nation's public lands and waters open for business, particularly to oil and gas companies. In its first six months the administration offered more onshore leases to energy companies to drill on public property than the Obama administration did in all of 2016, the secretary of interior, Ryan Zinke, boasted to the conservative Heritage Foundation in late September.
"Our goal is an America that is the strongest energy superpower that this world has ever known," he told the group, and added, "the road to energy dominance goes through the great state of Alaska."
Nowhere is this more evident than on the North Slope. In April, Mr. Trump signed an executive order aimed at lifting President Barack Obama's closure of federal Arctic waters to drilling, a decision now being challenged in court. Both the administration and the Republican-held Congress are trying yet again to open the Arctic refuge for oil exploration, an effort that provoked a fierce battle a dozen years ago.
In May during a visit to Alaska, Mr. Zinke signed an order to "jump-start" energy production in the petroleum reserve, ordering officials to review the reserve's management plan with an eye toward potentially revising it to maximize output. He ordered new estimates of how much oil and gas lay under the ground of both NPR-A and part of the Arctic refuge. Mr. Zinke stood beside the famed Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which now pumps about one-quarter of the oil it did in its heyday in the late 1980s, a reflection of years of declining output. He placed his hand to the pipeline as some place their hands to their hearts, and he pledged to help fill it.
In late October, he started to make good on his pledge, announcing that the largest offering of public lands for lease in the history of the Bureau of Land Management --- 10.3 million acres --- will be up for bid on Dec. 6.
All of this comes as several recent finds on state and federal lands and in the waters of the far north, including potentially the largest oil discoveries in the state in at least two decades, have spurred a surge of interest there. Alaskan Republicans are cheering these efforts, desperate for rescue from a recession caused by the cratering of oil prices. The pressure to drill the top of the world is high.
Though he is chief steward of our public heritage, Mr. Zinke has proved himself more wedded to "drill, baby, drill" than to educating himself about the public lands he oversees. He seems willfully ignorant of the reality that the National Petroleum Reserve is more than an untapped oil drum waiting for a straw. The western Arctic contains a world, wild and rich and like no place else. It must not be sacrificed.
President Warren Harding created the reserve for the United States Navy in 1923, years after Alaskan Natives first showed oil seeps to Yankee whalers. Over the decades the military and a few companies pricked the ground with exploratory wells. Nothing came of it commercially. As a result the place largely remains much as it was --- nearly roadless and all but unpeopled except for the Inupiaq, whose ancestors roamed the region starting at least 13,000 years ago.
Each region supports a distinct ecosystem.
The Utukok River Uplands are about four times bigger than the largest grassland in the continental United States, according to Debbie S. Miller, who spent four summers in the reserve for her book "On Arctic Ground." She calls it our Serengeti, pulsing with the migration of the 200,000-strong western Arctic caribou herd, and the bears and wolves that follow them.
Peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, golden eagles and rough-legged hawks perch like hood ornaments on the bluffs of the Colville River, which scientists say is one of the most important raptor nesting areas in the world.
As co-owner of the guiding outfit Arctic Wild, Michael Wald has paddled the Colville and many other rivers in NPR-A. He adores the reserve. "It's the last place you can go and hide from the 21st century," Mr. Wald said.
The Kasegaluk Lagoon is home to thousands of beluga whales, spotted seals and polar bears. Walruses gather in huge rookeries on Kasegaluk's beaches as ice floes, their preferred resting and feeding places, melt away, making these shores a key substitute as climate change upends their world.
In the far north lies one of the largest complex of wetlands in all of the Arctic --- an expanse of ponds, streams and marshes larger than Delaware. The centerpiece is the shallow Teshekpuk Lake, larger in area than Lake Tahoe.
Teshekpuk and the area surrounding it is vital to a rich array of birds that journey there from around the world --- from ducks and geese to shorebirds, gulls and jaegers, according to a 2013 study in the journal Conservation Biology. Every spring at least 29 species of shorebirds --- perhaps six million of them --- land there from other continents to breed, nest and raise their young. It's an international nursery, at the edge of the continent.
Exotic returnees include the Arctic tern that can shuttle to and from Antarctica, and another visitor, the bar-tailed godwit, which after pausing to fatten up still more on the Yukon Delta, will fly without pause to New Zealand, a journey of more than 7,000 miles, the longest-known nonstop over-water migration.
Teshekpuk also nourishes the winged flashes of color that brighten our daily lives in the Lower 48: The swan seen on a Maryland lake. The duck pursued by a hunter in Texas. The Lapland longspur that spends the harsh winter picking through the cutover wheat fields of Kansas. Birds from all four major American flyways converge here, and the central Pacific and East Asian-Australasian flyways, too.
While the Arctic refuge is deservedly famous, researchers in that 2013 study found that when it came to all the species of aquatic birds they were looking for, they found more of them, packed more densely, along the coast of the petroleum reserve, the place that almost no one knows.
In 2013, President Obama's secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, signed off on a sweeping management plan that earmarked 11.8 million acres, 52 percent of the petroleum reserve, for potential oil and gas development. That land was thought to hold 72 percent of the recoverable oil, according to estimates at the time.
The plan also set aside five "special areas" for wildlife and other values in the rest of the reserve, in areas that included the Utukok River Uplands, the Colville River and Teshekpuk Lake. Not every acre of these special areas is off limits to oil and gas leasing nor immune to the construction of the pipelines, gravel roads and ice roads in winter needed for resource extraction.
Even so, this hard-fought compromise won wide support from sportsmen, Native villages and major environmental groups. It had taken three years to hammer out. Amazingly, no one sued over the final result. "It did a good job of zoning this big place," said Melanie Smith, director of conservation science for Audubon Alaska.
More than 40 years ago, Congress had recognized that the reserve had more of value than simply oil. The 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act gave the Department of the Interior a novel mandate to explore the energy resources "in a manner which will assure the maximum protection" of "surface values" such as wildlife, subsistence hunting and recreation. Congress even mentions Utukok and Teshekpuk.
The 2013 plan strikes the balance that Congress wanted. While the plan isn't perfect, it mostly works. Wildlife gets protection, while oil companies get annual lease sales in the reserve (1.8 million acres during the Obama administration, the B.L.M. says, hardly an Obama administration lockup of public lands that Mr. Zinke has suggested). In late 2015, ConocoPhillips drew the first commercial oil from Native land within the reserve. The company is already at work on several other projects there.
Now, however, this hard-won compromise is in jeopardy. With big oil finds happening just outside the reserve, and tantalizing new ones within it, state officials want the reserve open wider.
First, Mr. Zinke announced on Oct. 25 that every available tract under the 2013 plan would be up for lease, at once. "This is unprecedented," both in scale and approach, said Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Alaska regional director for the Wilderness Society.
"In the past, the B.L.M. has offered leases based on industry interest," she said. "This is not based on industry interest, it's based on a wholesale approach to selling off whatever they can in the NPR-A."
The next step, many now fear, will be to scrap the 2013 plan entirely. "We're viewing this as Step 1," she said of the lease sale.
Indeed, in August, the B.L.M. invited oil companies and the public to nominate parcels they would like to see put up for bid in a future sale. Included on the map were parcels throughout the "special areas" that are now off limits to drilling. Stacie McIntosh, the B.L.M.'s Arctic district manager, said the announcement was intended to gauge future interest, and that there could be no lease sales there until after thorough environmental review.
But the writing is on the wall.
One area now off limits but posted in August for lease is a piece of soggy ground north and east of Teshekpuk Lake. Government geologists think this general zone is particularly rich in oil. It's also some of the best bird habitat on the planet. Though the area covers just 18 percent of the reserve, it is home to more than 40 percent of all the aquatic birds that visit the North Slope, government scientists reported in the 2013 study.
North of the lake is also a protected calving area for the 41,000-animal Teshekpuk caribou herd. Caribou return time and again to the same calving grounds, where they remain for a few weeks as females give birth, Ms. McIntosh said.
The herd then moves around the lake as the caribou seek ocean breezes to gain relief from the murderous Arctic mosquitoes and botflies, and later to migrate.
"If industry is allowed to enter into some of these very sensitive habitat areas, it would change these areas permanently," said Ms. Whittington-Evans. Roads, pipelines and drill rigs would all fragment the habitat.
The Inupiaq people live here, too, including subsistence hunters who rely on the caribou and harvest up to 4,000 annually. "We strongly urge B.L.M. to maintain the leasing prohibitions," Vern Cleveland Sr., the chairman of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group, wrote the B.L.M. in September. The group represents subsistence hunters, hunting guides and conservationists, among others.
The push by Mr. Zinke to open up still more country seems all the more hawkish given that drilling has scarcely begun on existing leases in the reserve. "To fully develop the lands currently available for lease will take decades," Ms. Smith of Audubon Alaska said. To take such risks to meet total American oil needs for a few months, based on the available estimates of what may be in the ground, seems madness.
Or willful blindness. Or greed. The history of America is the chronicle of a grasping people. We take, and we take still more. What has redeemed us, in part anyway, is that we aspire to be better than who we are.
The western Arctic presents us the choice again of who we want to be. Do we possess the generosity of imagination to gently handle a place still mostly untouched and pristine, one almost no one has have ever heard of, and even fewer of us will ever visit? For once, can we restrain ourselves to half?