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North to Alaska . . . Not
The myth of Alaska stands in the way of its oil-giving potential.


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Alaska, more than any other state, elicits a sense of ownership among Americans. Unlike their attitude toward, say, New Jersey, Americans have a sense of entitlement when it comes to Alaska.  Encouraged by environmental groups for whom the Last Frontier is a direct-mail goldmine, most Americans believe that the future of Alaska has yet to be written — and that doing so should be a national endeavor.

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This same neo-colonial impulse governs the current debate over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil development. While the Gore-Lieberman campaign’s most recent get-out-the-vote gambit of plundering the Strategic Oil Reserve will provide the U.S. with roughly a day and half of its oil needs, ANWR holds the potential of replacing our oil imports from Saudi Arabia for 30 years. And yet that potential remains unrealized, despite our record level of foreign-oil dependence, largely because of the myth that is Alaska: America’s National Park. 

First, a word of disclosure: I am an Alaskan. I was born and spent the first 18 years of my life in the 49th state. My parents, four of my brothers and sisters, and seven of my nieces and nephews live in Alaska. And yes, they have jobs. Businesses, even. They would benefit — if indirectly — from the decision to open ANWR to oil and gas development.

That said, none of my relatives — nor anyone they vote for — has a real say in the future of ANWR. Thanks to Jimmy Carter, that privilege resides with the guys and gals in the nation’s capital, some 5,000 miles away. And while it’s true that three of the 535 members of Congress are from Alaska, and that they are good and powerful representatives, they are accorded little deference when it comes to matters of overwhelming impact on their constituents, such as ANWR.

In 1980, in the waning days of his administration (a month after Ronald Reagan had pointed him back to the peanut farm in Plains), Carter signed legislation appropriating 104 million acres of Alaska for the federal government. With a stroke of his overly earnest pen, one third of Alaska was suddenly off limits to Alaskans. At the state fair in Anchorage that year, more bottles were thrown at the effigy of President Carter than at the effigy of the Ayatollah Khomeni.

Carter’s eleventh-hour legislative triumph also decreed that oil development in ANWR would necessitate an act of Congress and presidential approval. But more recently he seems to have lost his patience with the vagaries of democracy. On a recent trip to Alaska to commemorate the 20th anniversary of what real Alaskans still refer to as “the biggest federal land grab in history,” Carter suggested that President Clinton follow his example and use his dwindling days in office to create a “legacy” of his own. 

The president, Carter said, should bypass Congress and evoke the 1906 Antiquities Act to unilaterally declare ANWR a national monument, permanently off limits to development of any kind.

Carter still gets misty eyed when he comes back and visits the national parks, refuges, and monuments he created. And Alaska is indeed a beautiful place. For those former presidents, senators, and congresspeople who have the opportunity to view its remote, often restricted, mountains and river valleys, it is the experience of a lifetime. But 99 percent of Americans will never see Alaska. And fewer than 1 percent will ever have the chance to view the coastal plane of ANWR, the area in the northernmost and easternmost corner of the state in which oil development, should it ever occur, will occur.

This fact leaves environmentalists free to routinely, and unironically, refer to ANWR as “America’s Serengeti.” This comparison to the thriving Tanzanian wildlife refuge is meant to convince voters in Grosse Point and Cedar Rapids that America cannot afford to expose ANWR to the rapacious treatment of “Big Oil.” So far that campaign has been very effective. 

With visions of stampeding giraffes and frolicking baby cougars dancing in their heads, Americans in the lower 48 routinely tell pollsters they would rather continue to import oil from Arab potentates than open up ANWR.

In fact, “America’s Serengeti” suffers rather badly in comparison with the African Serengeti. The coastal plain is a stark, treeless landscape that is frozen nine months of the year and enveloped in total, uninterrupted darkness for two months of that time. With the coming of spring, it turns into what one reporter described as “an impenetrable, muddy swamp.” And then, of course, there are the mosquitoes and other flying, biting things.

Of course, the James Carville Rule is not always operative — a lack of physical beauty does not automatically connote a lack of value. ANWR is famously the summer home of 129,000 caribou known as the porcupine herd. The mommy porcupine caribou spend the summers getting fat and having babies on the coastal plain. They then, unaccountably, go to Canada for the winter.

Environmental groups claim that oil development in ANWR will hurt the baby caribou by frightening away their mommies, forcing them to less desirable locations when their time of confinement comes. And the enviros have enlisted a very convenient tribe of Alaskan Indians called the Gwich’in in their cause.

The Gwich’in, who live about 150 miles south of the area in dispute, consider ANWR to be the “sacred birthing ground” of the caribou they have hunted for millennia, more recently with the aide of snow machines, motor boats, and all-terrain vehicles. During their many visits to Washington to lobby against ANWR development, the Gwich’in usually avoid mentioning that they previously authorized oil development on their land, only to find nothing but dry wells.

Nobody wants to hurt baby caribou, of course. And proof that ANWR can be developed without doing so can be found 60 miles to the west, at Prudhoe Bay, the giant oil field that is the starting point of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Prudhoe Bay has been in operation for 20 years, pumping out 20 percent of U.S. domestic production. When the field was being considered for development in the late Sixties, local Eskimos and environmentalists were concerned about the nearby Central Arctic caribou herd. But instead of declining, the herd has thrived alongside oil production on the North Slope, growing from 3,000 head in the Seventies to almost 20,000 today. The caribou, it is said, rub up against the warm pipeline to stave off the cold of the long Arctic winter.

What’s more, the technology of oil production has come a long way in the 30 years since Prudhoe Bay was developed. If the same facility were built today, its “footprint” — the amount of land that would be impacted — would be 64 percent smaller. In addition, oil companies have pledged not to explore or drill during the caribou-calving season, and to conduct virtually no activity there once the field is in production. These assurances, and the obvious economic advantages that would come from being oil exporters, have caused the Native Alaskans who live inside ANWR to support development.

But to what end? ANWR is believed to be the largest untapped source of oil in the United States. In a state one-fifth the size of the United States, inside an Arctic reserve the size of South Carolina, on a coastal plain the size of Delaware, oil production in ANWR would impact about 2,000 acres, according to the oil industry.

But short of war in the Middle East or $5-a-gallon prices at the pump, it seems unlikely that the resources of ANWR will be recovered soon. The New York Times recently reported that Alaskans have now seen the error of their ways. Gotham’s newspaper of record said that former President Carter was welcomed “as a hero and a visionary for what has been called the greatest conservation act in American history” on his recent trip to Alaska. The Washington Post, moreover, recently devoted its op-ed page to a former Interior Department functionary who urged President Clinton to act unilaterally to protect ANWR in order to overcome what he called unacceptable “congressional inertia.”

It is a sad fact of history that these voices are more important to the future of Alaska than are the voices of Alaskans themselves.  Alaska, after all, was a latecomer to the Union. The New York Times and the Washington Post were here first. It is perhaps understandable that these opinion makers in the East don’t want Anchorage and Fairbanks to end up looking like the Bronx and Anacostia. And on this score, it must be said, Alaskans emphatically agree. Which is why we’d rather have the freedom to control our own destiny.

Jessica Gavora is author of Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX.



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