Published: May 2006

Alaska's North Slope

Polar Bear

Fall of the Wild

Our appetite for oil threatens to devour Alaska's North Slope

By Joel K Bourne, Jr.
National Geographic Senior Writer
Photograph by Joel Sartore

In the petroleum-rich wilderness Alaskans simply call "the slope," big money, power politics, and hype run as thick as the mosquitoes. It is the wildest part of the wildest state, a Utah-size swath of tundra sweeping down from the Brooks Range to the shores of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. It is also one of the richest, both in wildlife and hydrocarbons. The sprawling oil fields surrounding Prudhoe Bay produce 16 percent of the United States' domestic oil supply, along with a whopping 90 percent of Alaska's state revenues. Some 15 million acres (6 million hectares) in the middle of the slope, including the lucrative oil fields, are owned by the state. Much of the rest, save for a few sizable parcels owned by the native Inupiat, belongs to you and me.

Most of our holdings are split between the scenic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the east, and the biggest single block of land in the federal estate, a 23-million-acre (9-million-hectare) chunk of western Arctic known as the National Petroleum Reserve‚ÄďAlaska, or NPRA. Though it sounds like a massive oil tank that the nation taps in times of need, in reality it contains the largest piece of unprotected wilderness in the nation, along with a half million caribou, hundreds of grizzlies, wolves, and in summer more waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds than anyone can count.

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