Our Last Great Wilderness

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The route followed the John River, where Bob Marshall had wondered at the grandeur of the Brooks Range, to Anaktuvuk Pass, where there was one of the last inland settlements of Nunamiut Eskimos. Archaeological remains in the pass show that their ancestors have lived there for thousands of years, deriving food, clothing, and even their skin-covered huts from caribou herds channelled through the pass. The pass is also a convergence of flyways that carry migratory birds to the North Slope from as far away as Asia and South America.

Now, however, the rock walls of the pass thundered to the sound of diesel engines, and the construction crew contracted with the Eskimos to mark the final 182 miles of the road across the windswept tundra to Prudhoe Bay. This the Eskimos did by tying bundles of brush and topping each bundle with a red flag.

On March 12 the road was finished, and in the few weeks before the spring thaw, some 340 tractor-trailer loads fought their way north. Hardly a month after its completion I flew along the road and through the pass. The spring sun had done its work. The road was a long black scar across the landscape. Before the summer was out, much of it was a muddy canal. In the words of one oil company executive it had proven to be “somewhat less than satisfactory.”

The road, called the Walter J. Hickel Ice Highway, became a focal point of indignation to those who feared an ecological disaster. They argued that it had set in motion an irreversible process in which melting would steadily widen the scar, making a muddy barrier to caribou herds, whose survival depends on migration between summer and winter pastures. (Caribou are still plentiful in northern Alaska. The Porcupine River herd in the east is now estimated at 140,000 and the western herd at 300,000.) It was also argued that muddy water running down the roadbed was polluting streams, interfering with the spawning of salmon and other fish.

Secretary Hickel sought to shrug off the episode. “So they’ve scarred the tundra,” he told Science magazine. “That’s one road, twelve feet wide, in an area as big as the state of California.” Nevertheless, although last winter the ice road was reopened, as well as a spur along the projected pipeline route into Dietrich Pass, Mr. Hickel seems to be moving cautiously on the pipeline itself.

Meanwhile the race to prepare for the lease bidding gained momentum. New airstrips sprang up like dandelions on a spring lawn. By late summer there were seven within seventy miles of Prudhoe Bay; at the airport in Fairbanks one could see as many as ten of the giant Hercules planes lined up for loading. Drilling equipment was stacked alongside the taxiways. The tundra, a few years ago the loneliest place in the world, had lights twinkling across its vastness in the busy winter of 1968-69 as drill crews raced to reach the oil-bearing layers. By the time, in September, 1969, when a representative of the state of Alaska stepped to a microphone in Anchorage and called on seven hundred oilmen to cease their excited murmuring, thirtyseven wells had been drilled on the Slope, and twenty-four seismic crews had roamed the tundra, setting off explosions and making measurements.

“It is 8:13 A.M. on the tenth day of September, 1969,” said the man at the microphone. “My name is Tom Kelly. …” Thus began one of the most dramatic scenes in Alaskan history. The state had called for sealed bids on the available North Slope tracts. Each of the envelopes contained not only a bid but a check for 20 per cent of the proffered amount. At the airport a jet stood ready to rush the checks to New York for immediate deposit, lest even one day’s interest be lost.

The preparation for this meeting also had its dramatic elements. The executives of ten oil companies chartered a train for five days and had it run continuously back and forth through the scenic country between Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, while they worked out details of their joint bids. No one was allowed to leave the train.

The state of Alaska had also been busy, preparing “floor bids” on each tract. These, in effect, were assessments on the basis of which the state could refuse a bid if it seemed too low. As customary, those companies exploring the North Slope had been required to submit all their data, including drilling logs, to the state to help in preparation of these floor bids. There was an obvious danger that rival companies might gain access to this information, and the records were daily carried to and from a vault under guard.

The audience in the Anchorage auditorium watched intently as the first of 1,105 sealed bids on the 179 tracts up for sale was opened. The bidding began strong. A combination of Gulf, British Petroleum, and BP Alaska offered $96,000,000 for six tracts. In the end, after a few bids had been rejected as too low, 164 tracts had been leased for bonus bids totalling a little over $900,000,000.

There had never been anything like it in the history of the oil business. And this for the right to drill on a relatively small area of ground in a vast territory bought from Russia 102 years earlier for a piddling $7,200,000.