The world is filled with many natural wonders. One of these marvels is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. Its 19.6 million acres are some of the last truly undisturbed wilderness. The area has been called the crown jewel of America’s refuge system. This wildlife sanctuary, composed of a far-reaching stretch of tundra studded with marshes and lagoons and intertwined with rivers spectacularly situated between the rugged foothills of the Brooks Range and the broad, ice-cold waters of the Beaufort Sea, is awe-inspiring. However, the oil companies do not seem to see the beauty of this pristine place, only the possible profit in it.
The oil industry would like to drill in the biological heart of the refuge – the Coastal Plain. This 25 mile wide area between the Arctic Ocean and the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range is vital to the continued existence of many organisms. The Coastal Plain bursts with life during the short spring and summer months, giving it the nickname “America’s Serengeti.” The Porcupine River caribou herd of about 129,000 individuals goes to the Coastal Plain on an annual basis to bear and nurse their young.
The polar bears use it as their most important on-land denning area. Musk oxen, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, foxes, golden eagles, and snowy owls assemble there to hunt and den. Dall sheep, whales, moose, 36 fish species, and eight other marine mammals thrive in the region, too. About 300,000 snow geese also stop there in the fall to eat after coming from their nesting grounds in Canada. Millions of other birds use the land to breed, nest or rest, and as a crucial staging area before they migrate through the United States. Drilling would harm all of these animals.
In addition to hurting wild animals, the drilling would be detrimental to the Gwich’in people. They are one of the last subsistence cultures left in North America, and have lived south and east of the refuge for 20,000 years. These are the people of the caribou. Just as the Porcupine caribou herd depends on the Arctic Refuge to survive, the Gwich’in depend on the caribou for their survival. They use the caribou as food, clothing, shoes, shelters, medicines, blankets, sleds, tools, and more. They also tell caribou stories and sing caribou songs and dance caribou dances. Lorrain Netro, a native Gwich’in, stated the following:
My home is in Old Crow near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My people talk about the sacred places within our nation, like the refuge, and our need to protect these sacred places because our spiritual connection between the land, the animals, and our people. In this day and age, it’s difficult sometimes for others to understand how this can still be, and yet it’s so much a part of us that we can’t see it any other way (Indigenous Environmental Network 2001).
Thus, the land and the caribou are the foundation of the Gwich’in culture and life.
Like too many other Native American cultures, the long-established life of the Gwich’in may soon exist only as a memory. The big oil companies want to drill on the coastal plain of ANWR, destroying the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Transforming the biological heart of the refuge into a sprawling industrial complex would not only destroy the pristine wilderness, but also the culture of the Gwich’in.
The drilling west of the refuge (near Prudhoe Bay) has already done considerable damage to the environment. The development there has permanently changed 400 square miles of pristine wilderness into 1500 miles of roads and pipelines, 1400 wells, three airports, 17 sewage treatment plants, and hundreds of large waste pits. The drilling there has discharged into the environment more that 43,000 tons of nitrogen oxides per year, which cause smog and acid rain, and 100,000 metric tons of methane that contributes to global warming. There have been about 1,600 spills between 1994 and 1999 comprised of 1.2 million gallons of oil, diesel fuel, acid, biocide, ethylene glycol, drilling fluid, and various other materials. All of this could occur in ANWR if the oil companies get what they want.
Drilling in ANWR, potentially causing all of these environmental problems, would not solve U.S. energy problems. The United States Geological Survey scientists estimate that there is likely only enough oil under ANWR to supply America’s energy needs for six months. Plus, the oil companies have said that the oil would not be available for use for at least ten years. There is also no guarantee that oil from the refuge would ever reach American consumers because Alaska’s congressional delegates want to resume selling Alaskan oil to China, Korea, Japan, and other foreign countries. So, the drilling would only harm America and not help America.
Overall, the drilling would cause a lot of damage. A pristine wilderness would be turned into a noisy, polluted, developed area. Millions of species of animals would be harmed. They would no longer be able to use the Coastal Plain to feed, mate, nest, and hunt. They would be forced onto marginal lands, and their numbers would be negatively affected. The Gwich’in’s 20,000-year-old culture would be destroyed. And, the drilling could cause many environmental problems, including global warming and smog and acid rain. Plus, the drilling wouldn’t even solve the energy problems in the U.S. So, drilling in ANWR should be prevented!