The Business of Arctic Anti-Stewardship

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The upper Colville River and headwaters on Alaska’s North Slope | Joel Sartore

Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 8.40.28 AMThanks to Christopher Solomon, contributing editor at Outside magazine, for this important story published in the New York Times. The interactive element highlighting each ecosystem, followed by migration visuals drive home the extremity and unprecedented nature of the policies that the federal government of the United States of America is now promoting.

America’s Wildest Place Is Open for Business

Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 8.42.01 AMSeveral years ago a mapping expert pinpointed the most remote place in the Lower 48 states. The spot was in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, 20 miles from the nearest road. Roman Dial read the news and wasn’t much impressed. To him, 20 miles — the distance a hungry man could walk in a long day — didn’t seem very remote at all.

Mr. Dial is a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, and a National Geographic explorer. He decided to figure out the most remote place in the entire nation. His calculations led him to the northwest corner of Alaska, where the continent tilts toward the Arctic Ocean. The spot lay on the Ipnavik River on the North Slope, 119 miles west of the Haul Road (otherwise known as the Dalton Highway), which brings supplies and roughnecks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.

Judged by miles, Mr. Dial reckoned, the place was six times more isolated than that corner in Yellowstone. So he decided to walk there. On the journey he and his companion didn’t see anyone else for 24 days.

Their destination lay within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. NPR-A, as it is known, is the single largest parcel of public land in the United States. The reserve sprawls across nearly 23 million acres, which makes it larger than Maine or South Carolina or 10 other states. The reserve’s eastern border sits about 100 miles to the west of the more famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Separating the two like a thorn between roses lies the industrial sprawl of Prudhoe Bay.

If the reserve still doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. Even Google Earth doesn’t know it, though the reserve is 10 times the size of Yellowstone. “It is the wildest place in America that you’ve never heard of,” as one conservationist recently told me.

Yet the reserve deserves attention, now more than ever. The Trump administration has declared the nation’s public lands and waters open for business, particularly to oil and gas companies. In its first six months the administration offered more onshore leases to energy companies to drill on public property than the Obama administration did in all of 2016, the secretary of interior, Ryan Zinke, boasted to the conservative Heritage Foundation in late September. “Our goal is an America that is the strongest energy superpower that this world has ever known,” he told the group, and added, “the road to energy dominance goes through the great state of Alaska.”

Though he is chief steward of our public heritage, Mr. Zinke has proved himself more wedded to “drill, baby, drill” than to educating himself about the public lands he oversees. He seems willfully ignorant of the reality that the National Petroleum Reserve is more than an untapped oil drum waiting for a straw. The western Arctic contains a world, wild and rich and like no place else. It must not be sacrificed.

President Warren Harding created the reserve for the United States Navy in 1923, years after Alaskan Natives first showed oil seeps to Yankee whalers. Over the decades the military and a few companies pricked the ground with exploratory wells. Nothing came of it commercially. As a result the place largely remains much as it was — nearly roadless and all but unpeopled except for the Inupiaq, whose ancestors roamed the region starting at least 13,000 years ago.

The Utukok River Uplands are about four times bigger than the largest grassland in the continental United States, according to Debbie S. Miller, who spent four summers in the reserve for her book “On Arctic Ground.” She calls it our Serengeti, pulsing with the migration of the 200,000-strong western Arctic caribou herd, and the bears and wolves that follow them.

Peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, golden eagles and rough-legged hawks perch like hood ornaments on the bluffs of the Colville River, which scientists say is one of the most important raptor nesting areas in the world.

The Kasegaluk Lagoon is home to thousands of beluga whales, spotted seals and polar bears. Walruses gather in huge rookeries on Kasegaluk’s beaches as ice floes, their preferred resting and feeding places, melt away, making these shores a key substitute as climate change upends their world.

In the far north lies one of the largest complex of wetlands in all of the Arctic — an expanse of ponds, streams and marshes larger than Delaware. The centerpiece is the shallow Teshekpuk Lake, larger in area than Lake Tahoe.

Teshekpuk and the area surrounding it is vital to a rich array of birds that journey there from around the world — from ducks and geese to shorebirds, gulls and jaegers, according to a 2013 study in the journal Conservation Biology. Every spring at least 29 species of shorebirds — perhaps six million of them — land there from other continents to breed, nest and raise their young. It’s an international nursery, at the edge of the continent….

 

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