Autumn in ANWR

For most Americans, autumn means cooler air, shorter days, and warmer clothes. As a buffer between nature’s climatic extremes, it is a delicate balancing act, whose astonishing mosaic of changing leaves is a beautiful portent of the cold and dreariness that is to follow. It is a shame that some parts of America, like the tropical south and Mediterranean west, do not experience the emotive natural beauty of a distinct fall season.

Fall in another area of the nation may evoke emotions, but not because of aesthetically pleasing surroundings. The portion of Alaska just north of the Article Circle enjoys a distinct fall season, although not one that includes changing leaves, or deciduous leaves of any sort. The indigenous Inupiat Eskimos who live above the Arctic Circle in the coastal plain of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) know autumn as the last chance to hunt the Beluga whales that swim off the coast before the water’s freeze. Autumn for the Nunamiut Inupiats, or inland Eskimos, is a time when the typical family kills about 12 caribou for winter provisions as they pass through on their annual migration. Until the thaw of June, Eskimos will subsist on a diet of caribou leg, marrow of smashed caribou bone, grayling trout, and muktuk, or whale blubber, shaved off frozen chunks with the typical rounded Eskimo knife, the ulu.

Fall in ANWR is also a time of retrenchment for area tour groups that guide approximately 2,500 visitors through the refuge every year. Nearly all such tours, which usually cost $4,000 per person and include heated tents with gourmet chefs and travel via Snowcat, take place in the summer months. The harshness of winter allows the proprietors of these services, and their clients, to devote more of their attention to Washington, D.C. to protest loudly against those who would like to “commercially exploit” the refuge by extracting natural resources.

Of course, these people, and their environmentalist allies, are not really against commercial exploitation; just the kind that they believe would adversely affect their own commercial enterprises and fundraising opportunities. Many of the people who conduct these tours have moved to Alaska to get away from what they consider to be the materialistic and overdeveloped lower 48 states. Most enterprises describe their tours as “adventures,” which allow visitors to “escape the hustle and bustle” of their everyday life. Visitors are offered a glimpse of the “undisturbed natural surroundings” and, if they are lucky, may even get a chance to join the tour guides in the celebration of the nomadic, subsistence Eskimo culture by seeing the inside of an igloo, or giving the marrow of mashed caribou bone a try.

But when autumn arrives and the visitors return to the despised urban rat race of Los Angeles, New York, and the rest of America, the Eskimos stay and try to survive the brutally difficult winter. Thankfully, some Eskimos, such as those who live in the village at Anaktuvuk Pass, have it easier than others. As part of the North Slope Borough political mechanism, the Anaktuvuk Eskimos are secure and relatively well to do thanks to royalties derived from oil. Other Eskimos are able to brave the winter through money received from jobs provided by oil exploration and extraction. Estimates suggest that another 16 billion barrels of oil, probably more if recent experience is any guide, lies under 2,000 acres of ANWR ready to provide more jobs and royalties to the Eskimos if Congress votes to allow it to be extracted.

Part of President Bush’s Energy Plan calls for these 2,000 acres (0.01 percent of the refuge) to be opened for precisely this purpose. But allies of the environmentalists and tour guides have held up the legislation in the Senate, calling the plan “irresponsible” and “environmentally hazardous.”

The events of September 11th have offered a new look at the issue because a decision not to extract oil from ANWR is a decision to import it from a foreign, most likely Middle Eastern, source. As was the case in the 1970s, the political turbulence of the region threatens to paralyze the modern America economy. Today, America needs a comprehensive plan that does not discourage the development of domestic petroleum sources.

But worry about dependence on foreign oil is matched by the fear that drilling will contaminate the Arctic wilderness, or deprive visitors from the lower 48 of their naturalistic escape. How are we to know whose viewpoint should prevail?

If ANWR were private property, the issue at hand would be easily resolved. That may sound brash, since most would expect that privatization would mean indiscriminate drilling and exploration, but that is simply not the case. As the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Louisiana makes clear, oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas can be done. This 26,800-acre refuge is owned and operated by the National Audubon Society and has allowed oil drilling for nearly 30 years. Through careful land management and directional drilling, Audubon has protected the ecological resources while at the same time prospering from oil extraction. Could the same thing happen in ANWR? With an annual budget of over $40 million, and the potential to raise far more through a one-time drive, the Sierra Club would be in a position to do so. So would other conservancy organizations, or a coalition among them.

But instead of a private transaction where individuals seek mutually beneficial gains, we are left with a political choice, which will provide more benefits to some citizens than to others. The decision will be made not through negotiation, but through influence peddling, where both sides plead their case to Leviathan. Why doesn’t a tourism/environmentalist coalition purchase ANWR from the government? As the head of Netscape said when asked why he did not file his own suit against Microsoft, “it is much cheaper to use the government’s lawyers.” As long as Leviathan makes these decisions and has control over every sphere of human existence, the market and common law will be secondary ways to resolve such issues.

As autumn arrives and the tourists and guides turn their back on the locals to escape the devastating cold, the oil jobs and royalties remain in the Arctic Circle. While some may wish to emulate the Eskimos’ ascetic, naturalistic existence by moving to Alaska, we should not presuppose that given the opportunity, the Eskimos would make the same choice.