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Alaska's North Slope
MAY 2006
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Fall of the Wild (continued)
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Photographs by Joel Sartore

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Today it's the hunting lands of Nuiqsut. The next stop on the oil industry's wish list—based on where it is putting its money—isn't the coastal plain of ANWR, known by its government label as the 1002 Area. It's Teshekpuk Lake. The largest freshwater body on the slope sits in the most controversial chunk of NPRA to go on the auction block, some 4.6 million acres (1.8 million hectares) known officially as the Northeast Planning Area. The lake and its swampy borders, laced with creeks and potholes, have long been considered one of the most important molting areas for geese and other birds in the Arctic. A third of the world's black brant, for example, lose their flight feathers near the lake, along with tens of thousands of Canada geese, white-fronted geese, snow geese, and tundra swans. It's also the calving grounds for some 45,000 caribou known as the Teshekpuk herd, which serves as a veritable meat locker for four villages. Up to a tenth of the herd ends up on Inupiat tables every year.
 
"Teshekpuk Lake is God's country," said former borough mayor George Ahmaogak, who owns two hunting camps in the area. "Everything can be had there—waterfowl, fish, caribou. We made a good effort to keep that area closed. Now the Bush Administration comes along and says make it all available for leasing." In 1977 the Carter Administration initially designated the lake as one of three special areas within NPRA for its importance to wildlife, along with the bluffs by the Colville River, which are used by thousands of breeding peregrines, gyrfalcons, and rough-legged hawks, and the Utukok River uplands, calving grounds of the western Arctic caribou herd. That year and again in 1980, Congress instructed the secretary of the interior to ensure that any activity in these areas be conducted to "take every precaution to avoid unnecessary surface damage and to minimize ecological disturbance throughout the reserve." Even Ronald Reagan's famously anti-environmental secretary of the interior, James Watt, barred leasing on 200,000 acres (80,000 hectares) north of the lake to protect the geese. When the Clinton Administration decided to open NPRA to oil exploration in the late 1990s, it commissioned an exhaustive environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 4.6-million-acre (1.8-million-hectare) northeast block. After numerous studies of caribou and geese and countless meetings with villages that depend on game from the area, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt expanded the protection to more than a half million acres (200,000 hectares), but opened the remaining 87 percent of the Northeast Planning Area to leasing.
 
Some of the hottest oil prospects, however, were in the protected 13 percent. A geologic formation known as the Barrow Arch runs near the lake, and almost every commercial oil discovery on the slope has been found within 20 miles (30 kilometers) of it. The Bush Administration decided to update the EIS, claiming the government had new information on mitigating the impacts on wildlife. Last January, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton opened the entire area to drilling, except the lake itself. The decision leaves only 6 percent of the coastal plain closed to oil exploration, the piece that lies within ANWR.
 
"In 1998 we came up with an agreement most of us could live with," said Geoff Carroll, a long-time wildlife biologist who studies the Teshekpuk herd. "Then it was completely up-ended. Several studies since have reaffirmed the area's impor- tance as wildlife habitat. The only new information was BLM's assumption that there's more oil there than originally thought. All the emphasis and debate has been on ANWR. To me it's a big distraction as they sweep into this area that is just as important biologically as 1002."
 
Part of the dilemma now facing the North Slope and its residents is the permanency of the decisions being made here, largely out of view of the rest of the nation. Oil infrastructure in the Arctic is a bit like the scar you got on the playground as a kid. It may fade, but it never goes away. Take a look at a couple of old wells on a ridge overlooking the storied oil camp of Umiat, a hundred miles (160 kilometers) upstream of Nuiqsut. It was here in the 1940s and early 1950s that the Navy drilled the first test wells in what was then called Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4, established by President Warren G. Harding in 1923 as an emergency supply for the military. Umiat's large remote airstrip was later used as a flag stop for airplanes flying from Fairbanks to Barrow, and as a base for seismic crews who scoured NPRA in great cat-train expeditions during the 1970s and 1980s. Umiat now holds two dubious distinctions: It's one of the coldest places in the U.S. (average temperature is 10.8˚F [-11.8˚C), and it's the site of a multimillion-dollar toxic cleanup. 
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