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September 24, 1989
Wildlife, wealth...and an illusion of changelessness
In June, Alaska's arctic coastal plain begins to explode with life.
It seems such an unlikely place to do so. The North Slope has been snow-covered for nine months: wind-scoured, dark, frozen and seemingly lifeless. Then the light comes and comes. By summer it is a daylight that never disappears, a sun that hangs above the horizon even at midnight.
The plain thaws and erupts. It is not necessarily a pleasant place for humans: boggy, insect-bitten, flat, bleak. But for species that live as far away as Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, the lighted tundra is a vast nursery millions of birds, thousands of caribou, as well as moose, fox, wolves, musk oxen, grizzly and polar bears.
Once, the untouched North Slope seemed a place as changeless and abiding as the mountains. No more. This fecundity of life is part illusion. Make a wheeled track on this land and it will be seen two generations later, so slow is the annual growth of plants in the cold, nutrient-poor soil.
Man has brought change to this seemingly primeval place, and the oil industry expects to bring more. Though the Exxon Valdez went aground 800 miles away, in spectacularly different surroundings, the North Slope was where many eyes turned afterward. The state and the nation had to wonder again how much change or damage could be tolerated in the name of the massive oil wealth that has come to support so much of Alaska.
Drilling, gravel mining, oil flares, water runoff, noise, dust and traffic have all changed the Arctic. But even after two decades, the elusive answers are whether change automatically means damage, and just how important it really is.
When spring comes in the North Slope oil fields in late June, it is the roads long serpentine ramparts of gravel rising 5 feet above the boggy tundra that thaw first. Dust plumes off these roads and coats the surrounding snow in a shadow more than 200 feet wide on both sides. This dirtied snow, its darkness absorbing the sun's rays, melts next. As a result, each arctic spring thousands of birds now fly into these dust shadows to take advantage of the first open tundra and water.
Is this bad? Is this good? Biologists aren't sure. They only know that it is different, that man has changed the landscape in a subtle way that no one had predicted.
The roads themselves work like levees in a vast rice paddy. With spring, the water begins to creep imperceptibly toward the sea across the table-flat landscape. It is more like a tide than a river, a phenomenon called sheet flow. The water flows from south to north. Many of the new roads run east to west. Without meaning to, the oil-field engineers have formed dams 10 or 20 or 30 miles long.
The roads are pierced by culverts to let the water pass, but for two to three weeks the culverts are inadequate to their task. The water dams on one side of the road, and the tundra dries on the other.
Again, the importance of this is not clear. Sections of tundra around the oil fields have been desiccated, coated with dust, sprayed with gravel, stained with small spills and soaked with underground salts brought up by drilling. Still, compared to the total area of the vast coastal plain, the amount of destruction is tiny. Is this an acceptable trade for oil?
The Central Arctic caribou herd that inhabits the area around Prudhoe Bay has increased sixfold, to 20,000 animals, since the roads and drilling began. This echoes an increase in caribou numbers all around the Arctic in the last two decades, presumably from favorable weather.
"We're not responsible for the increase of the caribou population," said Scott Robertson, Arco's senior environmental consultant. "But it's also obvious we have not impeded the growth of the herd."
Despite this, biologists for Alaska's Department of Fish and Game remain doubtful. "Relative to the entire North Slope, (the existing oil fields) are a small area," admitted Dick Shideler, a caribou expert with the agency.
"But when you look at the area of the North Slope scheduled to be leased for oil development, it's substantial. Their argument is we haven't seen any decline in animals. Our point is, we've seen major incursions on habitat. There's been a lot of habitat damage, and we won't know if it's significant until it's too late."
Demonstrating severe harm to any species has proved difficult, particularly since no serious scientific census of the area was taken before development began. Birds still nest. Fish still swim, if in new patterns because of gravel causeways that jut into the Beaufort Sea as docks and drilling platforms.
Oil employees believe the Arctic can survive side by side with exploration and development. "We think we can do this reasonably," said Chris Garlasco, Arco's director of environmental compliance at Prudhoe Bay.
The industry and state and federal officials have learned from their mistakes, she said. Wintertime ice roads, for example, have eliminated the need for most landscape-scarring gravel roads. And the number of wells that can be fitted onto pads of gravel has increased, meaning a new pad in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge need only be about a quarter of the size of the first Prudhoe pads, the industry says.
Others warn that the oil industry will perform environmentally only as well as the public demands.
Keith Miller, North Slope inspector for the Department of Environmental Quality, echoes Dan Lawn, his DEC counterpart at Valdez.
"Everything is a battle," said Miller. "These guys don't give an inch. They don't give something for nothing."
The oil industry's argument to open Alaska's environmentally sensitive lands, such as the ANWR, to petroleum exploration can be summarized simply enough:
First, we need the oil for energy, for national security and for our balance of trade.
Second, the impact of drilling relative to the size of Alaska is tiny: at Prudhoe Bay, just 1 percent of the tundra has been affected by the oil fields, and only 2 percent of that is actually covered by roads and pads. Industry is proposing to explore about 1.5 million acres of ANWR, only 8 percent of the refuge, and says the part it desires is the flattest, least scenic stretch.
Finally, the environmental catastrophes critics once predicted have not with the exception of the Exxon Valdez spill materialized.
Environmentalists take issue with each point in this summary.
First, they argue, a sensible energy policy could conserve as much oil as goes untapped in places such as ANWR, with more permanent benefits.
Second, the impact of existing oil fields is visually and environmentally stunning, and development at ANWR would change the most environmentally productive area in the refuge.
Third, the industry's environmental record is poor, with the Exxon Valdez just the latest and worst example of carelessness.
Both sides are, to a degree, right.
"It's easy to show both the positive and the negative side of the area," noted Greg Zimmerman, the state's Department of Natural Resources officer for the North Slope.
Air pollution is an example. Occasional flaring of unwanted oil or gas has resulted in enormous clouds of greasy black smoke over Prudhoe that have been traced as far as 50 miles, said the DEC's Keith Miller.
Yet Miller also noted that, compared to other oil fields, the North Slope flares very little. The industry plans to replace existing flares with smokeless ones, but has no firm timetable.
Beyond the specific debates, preservationists and wildlife experts contend Alaska and the Arctic are a special place: fragile, pristine, and valuable in its very remoteness. It is a place of imagination, the last place to see a world without human transformation, and thus learn more about ourselves. It is where, finally, the line must be drawn.
"The oil industry likes to refer to this area as a wasteland," said Shideler, the caribou biologist. "The North Slope is inhospitable for people, but not for wildlife. A lot of the Lower 48 waterfowl go to the Arctic for nesting. With the loss of wetlands in the Lower 48 and Canada, this area becomes even more important. I look at a lot of cities, and I think that's a wasteland."
If the oil industry asks not to be judged by its early mistakes at Prudhoe, environmentalists ask that ANWR's ecological and scenic values be held in higher regard than the already developed North Slope.
The wildlife refuge is simply more beautiful: Its coastal plain is rolling and the Brooks Range is much closer to the sea. You can stand on the flats and look up at the Brooks Range; you can stand on the foothills of the Brooks Range and see the sea. It is a microcosm of the entire North Slope ecology.
The biggest peaks in the Brooks Range are in ANWR: huge, spooky looking, snow-driven and cloud-shrouded. There are no trees. The same lack of vegetation that leads oil spokesmen to dismiss the region as unattractive lays the geology dramatically bare for all to see.
The nearness of the mountains also concentrates the wildlife. The coast is dotted with polar bear dens and the foothills with grizzly bear dens. There were 3,000 caribou in the herd that frequents Prudhoe when that oil field began; there are 165,000 in the migrating Porcupine herd that sometimes calves in the ANWR area where oilmen want to drill. Estimates of the migrating bird population in ANWR range from 1 million to 2 million.
So far, state and federal agencies have tended to support ANWR oil exploration, although the outcry since the Prince William Sound spill has set exploration back politically. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outraged environmentalists with its conclusion that oil development could be accommodated.
ANWR manager Don Varos does not deny that some effects would be severe. "The visual impact would be seen for miles," he said.
But, he adds, "The wildlife impact is more difficult to predict." While environmentalists predict disaster for the Porcupine caribou herd, Varos said it has not used the proposed exploration area for calving at all the past two years, suggesting alternative sites may be adequate.
The oil that may exist in ANWR "is not something this country is going to walk away from," said Varos. "If Congress can live with the impacts, Fish and Wildlife can manage the area. I think the oil companies have great technology that can mitigate the damage we've seen in Prudhoe Bay."
To gasoline consumers 2,000 miles away in Seattle, the debate may seem esoteric. In 1988, only 5,000 people could afford the expense and trouble of getting to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area almost half the size of Washington state.
But everybody uses oil. People are, in effect, voting on the future of ANWR with their automobiles and their living habits.
"A nation that's as profligate as this country with oil consumption ought to be pretty pragmatic about getting oil within our borders," said Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper."
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