The Last Great Wilderness

(photo by Scott Dickerson?Alaska Stock)

Visitors to the area will have to deal with one of ANWR’s paradoxes in order to understand the place. Beautiful as it is, the refuge is difficult to reach, its logistics are complicated, and a sound backcountry skill set will be needed to enjoy it. No roads enter or lie within its boundaries, and there is no “glamping” on the Arctic Refuge. But let’s face it—the idea of readily accessible wilderness is an oxymoron. Olaus Murie noted the same point 60 years ago.

A 2015 Fish and Wildlife Service study recommended extending Wilderness designation to an additional 12 million acres, which would include almost all of the refuge. My neighbor and frequent hunting and fishing partner, Glenn Elison, served as director of the Arctic Refuge from 1983 to 1993 prior to becoming a regional FWS supervisor for the state. During his tenure, he estimates that around 1,200 people from outside the immediate area visited the refuge annually. I asked him why he thought an area that receives so little human traffic should matter to the millions of Americans who will never go there.

He offered the example of Yellowstone National Park. When the Hayden Expedition arrived in 1871 no one could have imagined a park as busy and important as it is today, hosting four million visits per year. Neither he nor I foresee anything like that happening in the Arctic Refuge (nor do we wish for it), but the point is taken. “Very few large, intact Arctic ecosystems remain,” Elison said. “This is a dramatic, lonesome, beautiful wilderness in the classic sense. That alone makes it worth preserving.”

Of particular interest is the 1.5 million-acre “1002” parcel now simply known as the arctic coastal plain. This area—the geographic center of the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd—was designated as suitable for study for possible oil and gas development under the terms of ANILCA, for a defined window of time that has now closed. The United States Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic coastal plain contains between 4 and 11 billion barrels of potentially recoverable oil, and industry interests inside the state and out have long coveted its economic potential. Under the terms of ANILCA, congressional approval would be required prior to any drilling. Numerous bills have been introduced to authorize it, but public opposition has always thwarted those efforts. The result has been a classic standoff between environmental interests and industry backers that shows no sign of ending soon.

Currently, Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have introduced legislation to authorize drilling on the refuge, while Senators Ed Markey (Massachusetts), Michael Bennet (Colorado), and 40 co-sponsors have introduced bills that would grant the area permanent wilderness protection.

To put the matter in perspective, even if the most optimistic estimates of the area’s petroleum reserves could be extracted—a near impossibility—the net amount of oil recovered would not meet more than a year’s worth of the country’s oil needs. We will not solve our energy problems by drilling the Arctic coastal plain. Because of the area’s fragility and inaccessibility any degree of development there would likely change the coastal plain forever, with potentially disastrous consequences for the region’s Native population and wildlife, especially the Porcupine caribou herd.

“The Arctic Refuge is one of America’s last pristine, untouched places,” notes Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society. “It has value beyond whatever oil might lie beneath it, and we have a moral obligation to protect it for our children and grandchildren. Oil and gas drilling would have devastating effects on this ecosystem.”

DESPITE ALASKA’S REPUTATION FOR RAIN and the amount of standing water along the coast, the North Slope averages 10-inches of rainfall annually, which qualifies its climate as semi-desert. It seldom acts that way when I’m there though, which explains why three friends and I are dripping wet barely a quarter of the way into the 20-mile hike from the nearest landing strip to the valley where we plan to hunt sheep. There isn’t much elevation gain along the way, but there aren’t any trails either and our backpacks are straining beneath the weight of everything we’ll need to survive for the next 10 days.

These factors explain why we aren’t paying quite as much attention as we should while we trudge along the stream, and the first glimpse of a brown, furry hump above the tops of the willows comes at uncomfortably close range. I don’t get rattled by encounters with brown bears along salmon streams farther south, but North Slope grizzlies have to meet their entire year’s nutritional needs during the brief Arctic summer. Their first response to a human encounter may be to investigate you as a food source.

Armed with nothing but bows, we’re fumbling for pepper spray when we gradually realize that something looks odd about the approaching bear, which soon becomes a herd of bears with horns atop their heads. We have walked into a group of musk ox, living fossil remnants of the Ice Age. This is one of the few places in North America where one can find them in the wild, and the encounter soon makes me forget my wet clothes and sore shoulders. Once again, I experience the familiar sensation of going backward in time.

Late the following afternoon we arrive at our destination, and the sky clears as if to greet us. After all those miles, simply shedding our packs feels euphoric. Then it’s time to set up camp, such as it is, and address our own ravenous appetites. We’ve burned too many calories to settle for freeze-dried, and I head to the nearby creek with the camp fly rod. An hour later, a pan full of little char sits sizzling over a willow twig campfire with a wisp of smoke curling toward the sky.

After one of those meals that can only be appreciated in a remote wilderness setting, I take a short walk uphill to reacquaint myself with the valley. Several years have passed since my last visit, and for the first time ever I sense change. The snow level is patchy and much higher than usual, and the only sheep I can see are a group of ewes and lambs that would need technical climbing gear to get any higher. The vegetation along the creek is lusher. I haven’t seen any caribou sign since our arrival. Oil and gas development isn’t the only threat the Arctic faces. Climate change in the abstract is one thing, but confronting it face to face is another.

But as the distant sun plays peek-a-boo among the peaks without ever really setting, I still feel a remarkable connection to the valley. The smart money is still on the sheep, but that has never been what matters here. It is enough to enjoy Sumner’s “work of art,” the one that symbolizes freedom.

Don Thomas traveled regularly to the North Slope of the Brooks Range and the Arctic Refuge while he was an Alaska resident, between 1980 and 2015. While sheep hunting there he stuck with his bow, and the smart money stayed on the sheep.

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