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Our Last Great Wilderness

June 2024
37min read

America’s greed for oil has drastically upset the ecological balance of Alaska’s North Slope, and the end is not in sight

On August 16, 1826, after long weeks of frustrating and perilous travel along the north coast of Alaska, the British explorer Sir John Franklin decided to abandon his bold ambition—completing the exploration of the North American coastline. The cluster of gravel banks where a conspiracy of storm, fog, drifting ice, and approaching winter forced him to turn back—still shown on maps as the Return Islands— lay off an indentation that he named Prudhoe Bay.

Less than a century and a half later this remote spot has become an arena for fierce, almost frantic competition among the world’s largest oil empires, and a focus of conservationist outrage. The gravel bars and shallow waters that made life miserable for Franklin’s men, with their small boats, have confounded those operating the largest ships ever built—the oil magnates seeking to extract the newly discovered oil beneath Prudhoe Bay.

The mission assigned to Franklin was to follow the uncharted coast from the mouth of the Mackenzie River in Canada across the top of Alaska to Bering Strait. Once Sir John’s party had passed from British to what was then Russian territory, travelling in boats that could be hauled over the sea ice when necessary, the mountains paralleling the coast had receded to the south, leaving a broad plain of marshy tundra between the shore and foothills.

At the same time the weather had become very foggy, perhaps, Sir John thought, because of the sodden nature of the coastal plain. For a week he had been unable to take any astronomical sights to learn his position, and for days the party was confined to a gravelly spit that they named Foggy Island.

The fog curtailed the caribou hunting on which they depended for fresh food, and there was only limited driftwood for their fires. When they tried to continue westward, they soon bogged down again, this time on one of the gravel banks they were to christen the Return Islands. After two days the sky cleared just long enough for observations to determine their position. The signs were all ominous. The season was late, and the fact that no Eskimos had been seen suggested that the region was inhospitable even to that hardy and resourceful people. Hence, on August 18, when the weather seemed at least tolerable, they began their return: As the waves were still very high to seaward [Sir John wrote], we attempted to proceed inside of the reefs, but as the boats were constantly taking the ground, we availed ourselves of the first channel that was sufficiently deep to pull on outside of them. The swell being too great there for the use of oars, the sails were set double reefed, and the boats beat to eastward against the wind, between the drift ice and the shallow water.


Thus ended the first visit of modern man to Prudhoe Bay. Sir John returned to the Arctic in 1845 to attempt a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of North America—the long-sought Northwest Passage. His ships were caught in the ice, and ultimately all 129 men of the expedition perished; but the expeditions sent to search for them—more than forty parties in all—added enormously to knowledge of the region and thus helped to make possible the historic trip of the giant tanker Manhattan in 1969.

Sir John and his men saw the land they discovered from the grimmest possible perspective, as do, to some extent, those laboring there now to find oil—fog, unpredictable ice floes, biting winds, frustrating gravel banks, a largely featureless shore, and an almost impassable swamp if one seeks, randomly, to walk inland.

The magnificent belt of mountains that parallels the coast is too far south to be usually visible. Yet those mountains, which span the entire width of northern Alaska from Canada to near the Bering Strait, together with the slope between them and the Arctic Ocean constitute the largest and least spoiled wilderness remaining within the United States. While the mountains have various local names, the system as a whole is known as the Brooks Range. It is, in fact, the northernmost extremity of the Rocky Mountain system. The foothills and the apron of tundra between them and the sea are known as the North Slope.

Near the coast the North Slope is not a slope at all, except to an imperceptible degree. It is like the sea—a great, monotonous, flat expanse that, to those who love it, has a grandeur without counterpart. One’s vision is opened to limitless horizons. One sees the march of clouds above and the march of seasons below in a way denied those hemmed in by walls or forests.

One of the most striking features of this region as seen from the air is the patterning of the surface much like that of an alligator skin. The extreme cold shrinks the ground until a polygonal series of cracks is formed. The cracks eventually fill with water, which freezes, leaving a system of tundra polygons enclosed by veins of ice.

To walk the tundra in summer is a chore, but well worth the effort. The dry winds blowing in from the ice-covered ocean bring little precipitation, but what there is stays on the surface, because the ground below is frozen; and since the region is flat, little flows away. The result is an endless series of puddles large and small.


These ponds are the summer home of all kinds of waterfowl, including phalaropes, whose heads jerk back and forth as they swim like little toy ducks. A remarkable feature of the tens of thousands of lakes south of Point Barrow, northernmost tip of United States territory, is that virtually all of them are elongated in precisely the same direction—slightly west of north. The orientation of the lakes has nothing to do with local geology, and they were not gouged by a flowing ice sheet. Scientists working on the North Slope are still seeking an explanation.

Walk across the tundra with your eyes alert and you will see the signs of an extraordinary ecology. Snaking through the covering of grass, sedge, lichens, and moss that is often knee-deep are countless little channels that hug the ground. Every now and then mouselike creatures scurry along one of these passages.

They are lemmings. Their channels are formed as tunnels under the snow during the winter, for lemmings do not hibernate and must push under the snow in search of cotton grass and other food. At the peak of the lemming population cycle that comes every three or four years, the tundra is swarming with the animals. Overhead a jaeger, a predatory gull with a spearlike tail, may be circling, waiting his chance to swoop on one of them. Here and there on the ground lie objects that look like black golf balls. These are owl pellets—the regurgitated remains of lemmings eaten by snowy owls, which digest the nourishing parts of the animal, then regurgitate a snug ball of fur and bones.

What fascinates the ecologists is the relative simplicity of relationships between the various life forms that make the North Slope beautiful and exciting. To a certain extent the larger animals all wax and wane in step with the lemming cycle. When the lemmings are plentiful, with as many as two hundred per acre, those who prey on them thrive: the jaegers, owls, and foxes in particular, but also, to some extent, the wolves, weasels, and wolverines.

The great puzzle is what causes the lemming cycles. What, too, accounts for tales of their mass suicides, when thousands plunge into the sea? Early explanations included such farfetched ideas as their desire to reach an ancestral home, a lost continent west of Norway, where mass lemming plunges are famous.


A more recent thesis has been that because of their extraordinary rate of multiplication they overwhelm their food supply. (The female gestates her young in twenty days and bears as many as thirteen in a litter. The newly born are ready to breed within three weeks.) According to this theory the forage, depleted by overgrazing, takes two or three years to recover in the harsh climate, and so lemming hordes set out in search of new pastures, plunging into every body of water that stands in their way, be it a narrow pond or the ocean.

It has recently been reported, however, that the population “crashes” occur before the food is exhausted, and the dying animals are not skinny. Some believe a change in blood chemistry, caused either by the stress of overcrowding or by a long spell of warm weather, affects the lemming brain, leading to erratic behavior and finally death.

Despite such puzzles, the ecology of the North Slope is far simpler than that of warmer environments, where many more life forms and other factors interact. Hence the North Slope is uniquely suited for the study of ecology.

Not that it lacks diversity. At Barrow there are about one hundred species of hollow-stemmed, or vascular, plants. During the two-month growing season the tundra abounds in color—purple and white anemones, poppies, saxifrage, and roses. Because the time for seeds to germinate and establish themselves is short, the tundra plants tend to belong to species that propagate themselves by spreading, like strawberry shoots or ivy, rather than by seed.

However, the continuous daylight of early summer helps make up for the shortness of the season. At Prudhoe Bay the sun does not set from May 14 to July 30 (and it does not rise from November 24 to January 17).

In winter the sharp demarkation between North Slope and Arctic Ocean tends to disappear. Both are frozen and snow-covered. Walking out to sea from the Prudhoe Bay shore this spring I found it impossible to tell when you left land and were walking on the sea. Farther out, though, the pack ice is forever in motion. Borne by wind and current, the floes grind and shriek against one another, sometimes overriding when an onshore wind presses them against the coast, sometimes buckling to form giant pressure ridges.

Polar bears roam the ice floes; grizzlies are numerous in the Brooks Range foothills. In the mountains one may see wolves following a band of migrating caribou or, if one is lucky, a loping wolverine who pauses every few dozen yards to rise on his hind feet and look around, like an oversized raccoon. He is said to be so ferocious that, although smaller than a wolf, he will drive a whole pack from their kill.

While the sweep of the tundra and the treeless foothills is magnificent, the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range are breathtaking. The mystery, beauty, and isolation of those mountains have enslaved the souls of many visitors, including myself.

Probably the first white man to cross the Brooks Range was Ensign (later Rear Admiral) W. L. Howard, who had been with a Navy expedition exploring tributaries of the Yukon in 1886. He penetrated the mountains and met a band of friendly Eskimos, who led him across what is now Howard Pass to the North Slope. There he descended to the Colville River, which he found to be an Eskimo trade route.

There were two distinct Eskimo cultures: the Nunamiut Eskimos, who lived a nomadic, inland life heavily dependent on caribou hunting; and the coastal Tariamiut Eskimos, whose base of operations was usually a village centered on a “dance house” and led by a whaling chief. Survival of the two groups depended heavily on trade between them.

Howard remained with the inland Eskimos until, with the arrival of spring, the ice broke thunderously from the rivers and the trading parties began to head downstream for the coast. Howard found these Eskimos gay and helpful travelling companions, and he became the first white man to reach the Arctic Ocean from the Alaskan interior.

In 1901 and 1924 the mountains were crossed via other routes. Then, in the thirties, a young man named Robert Marshall felt the call of the Brooks Range and devoted several years to its exploration. Marshall was a New Yorker of independent means with a doctor’s degree in botany from the Johns Hopkins University.

So deeply moved was Marshall by the beauty and solitude of the Brooks Range and other such virgin regions that he became instrumental in the establishment of the national wilderness areas that now preserve select tracts from harmful intrusion. This he was able to accomplish in the late 1930’s as chief of the Division of Recreation and Lands in the United States Forest Service. One of the preserves, in Montana, now bears his name: the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.


Marshall’s successive penetrations of the Brooks Range, during which he followed stream beds and ascended mountains to take bearings for his map making, showed the region to be unique. The mountains, none more than ten thousand feet high, are not as lofty as those of the central Rockies, but the harsh polar environment has carved them into pinnacles, canyons, and jumbled ridges nothing less than awesome.

Marshall told, as none had before, of the wonders of this region. At one point he came upon a lake more than a mile long, hemmed in by towering slopes that vanished into the clouds. Waterfalls dropped from the cloud-shrouded heights into the lake and its tributary streams.

“Nothing I had ever seen, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon or Mount McKinley rising from the Susitna, had given me such a sense of immensity,” Marshall wrote afterward of this spot. Yet he limited the circulation of his books on the Brooks Range, apparently fearful that his glowing descriptions might generate a deluge of tourists. These mountains, he felt, should forever be preserved for those willing to endure hardship to find solitude. There is something glorious in traveling beyond the ends of the earth [he wrote], in living in a different world which men have not discovered, in cutting loose from the bonds of world-wide civilization. Such life holds a joy and an exhilaration which most explorers today cannot understand, with their radios and aeroplanes which make the remotest corners of the world just a few days or even hours away in distance. Modern mechanical ingenuity has brought many good things to the world, but in the long list of high values which it has ruined, one of the greatest is the value of isolation.


Marshall could hardly have guessed how soon the modern world would invade this last great wilderness. When Ensign Howard crossed the mountains in 1886, he found that some of the natives were stoking their fires with oil-soaked shale. In 1906 Ernest de Koven Leffingwell of the United States Geological Survey, who explored the coastal area near Prudhoe Bay, found oil seeping out of the ground. And there were Eskimo tales of an entire lake of oil near Cape Simpson, west of Prudhoe Bay. In 1917 Alexander Malcolm Smith, better known as Sandy Smith, found the “lake,” fed by a large seepage, and within four years oil companies had begun staking claims in the area.


The Navy in those days was concerned with having access to sufficient fuel reserves for its fleet, newly converted from coal to oil. Three oil fields in the United States proper had been set aside as Naval Petroleum Reserves, including one at Teapot Dome in Wyoming.

In 1923 Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall acted to set aside the entire western part of the North Slope as Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4. Hardly had he done so when it was discovered that he had accepted $100,000 or more to allow a private oil company to exploit the Teapot Dome reserve. He was fined $100,000 and imprisoned.

Meanwhile, the Navy asked the Geological Survey to make a study of Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4, better known as Pet 4. This was completed in 1926, but no further action was taken until the enormously increased fuel consumption of World War II caused alarm. Reconnaissance in 1943 and 1944 disclosed seeps near Umiat, and an assessment suggested that an oil-bearing area “of indicated major importance” lay within the reserve.

Using amphibious techniques perfected during the war, the Navy landed equipment on the Arctic coast and hauled it across the tundra to various drilling sites, primarily at Umiat and near the coast at Cape Simpson (both areas of extensive seepage). Airstrips and base camps were built. When the war ended the work went on, and by 1953 a total of thirty-six test wells and forty-four smaller core holes had been drilled, some of them twelve thousand feet deep. At times as many as five hundred men worked on the North Slope, and a total of $47,000,000 was spent.

The results were disappointing. Oilbearing structures were penetrated, the largest reservoir being that at Umiat with an estimated seventy million barrels, but this was by no means enough to justify the enormous cost of Arctic petroleum extraction and transport.


In 1946 one party went east of Pet 4 to explore along the Sagavanirktok River—now known to oilmen all over the world as the Sag River. In that area, alongside Prudhoe Bay, geologists reported some promising “closed anticlines”—domed structures produced millions of years ago by folding of rock layers, within which oil tends to accumulate. However, no drilling was done.

Thus, sad to relate, prospectors for the Navy missed making the great strike. Had they done so, the history of the North Slope might have been quite different, for the Navy would have been far more inclined to hold the reservoirs of oil in reserve than would commercial firms answerable to profit-hungry stockholders looking for big dividends.

The final report to the Navy, when Pet 4 prospecting was halted in 1953, said that “the likelihood of usable petroleum deposits in the area are poor.” However, it noted, usable gas accumulations had been tapped. One well, near Barrow, was supplying that community with gas, obviating the need for an expensive delivery of fuel via the Arctic Ocean.

While the Navy-sponsored exploration did not hit the jackpot, it did demonstrate the extreme vulnerability of the North Slope to disturbance by man. When giant tractors hauled sled trains of heavy equipment across the snowcovered tundra, little or no harm was done. But if this occurred after melting had exposed the vegetation and the covering layer “was destroyed, the otherwise permanently frozen muck below, known as permafrost, melted in the summer sun. The “road” became a muddy canal. If there was any slope, this soon became a torrent.

As noted by Dr. Max Brewer, head of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory at Barrow, during a 1969 ecology conference, twelve feet of surface material could be eroded in this manner within two summers. Drilling has shown that the ground beneath the tundra south of Barrow is frozen to a depth of 1,330 feet.

The Army also had its troubles with permafrost. During World War II it was called upon to build airfields, hangars, and roads in the Alaskan interior and discovered how little it knew about the peculiarities of such terrain. When an airstrip of pierced planking or pavement was laid over a shallow layer of fill, the summer sun, shining on the surface day and night, generated enough heat to melt the frozen ground underneath. The result was that some parts of the runways sank and others did not, producing a graceful roller-coaster effect. When buildings were set directly on permafrost, they too settled in a lopsided manner, at times breaking apart.

From experience (and from studying Russian publications on the subject) the Army engineers learned to lay a bed of gravel about five feet thick over the permafrost as insulation before building anything on top of it. An alternate scheme was to drive pilings down into the frozen ground and then set the structure on top of the pilings, well clear of contact with the ground.

The wartime activities of the Army and Navy also demonstrated how easily the treeless landscape of the North Slope is defaced. In the Pacific Islands the war scars were soon overgrown, but in the open vastness of the tundra a single oil drum, abandoned vehicle, or crumbling Quonset hut can be seen for miles. Indeed, the oil drums used to fuel the tracked behemoths that hauled equipment across the tundra are the most common manifestations of civilization in that land. As one colonel in the Army Engineers wryly remarked, “The fiftygallon oil drum is the new state flower of Alaska.”

It was not only the hunt for oil that strewed steel drums across much of the Arctic. In the early postwar years fear of Soviet attack led to the construction of a chain of radar stations from Bering Strait to Greenland—the Distant Early Warning net, or DEW-line.

It was an effort that projected many Eskimos from the Stone Age to the age of electronics. As with the drill rigs, much of the heavy equipment was moved in winter when giant sleds could be hauled across the frozen tundra. Working conditions were frightful, with sub-zero winds blowing unchecked off the Arctic Ocean.

Eskimos were ideal for such work—hardy, resourceful. The best of the Eskimo “cat-skinners” who drove the giant “cats,” or tractors, learned to make repairs far from home base even in a cruel blizzard. Some, paid generous overtime wages on the same basis as men imported from warmer climes, were said to be making ten thousand dollars a year. With no sensible way to spend their money, they leafed through mailorder catalogues and, I was told, had such items as wide-screen television sets airfreighted to Barrow, even though their unpainted shacks had no electric power and there was no local television reception anyway.

However, such prosperity was exceptional. As will be seen, the Eskimo population as a whole was slipping into poverty and a crisis of adjustment.

The hunt for Alaskan oil began again shortly after Alaska achieved statehood in 1958. In 1964 the state applied to the federal Bureau of Land Management for control over some two million acres along the coast of the North Slope between Pet 4 on the west (bounded by the Colville River) and the Arctic National Wildlife Range to the east (bounded by the Canning River). The Wildlife Range, embracing 8,900,0OO acres and the most scenic part of the Brooks Range, is open to only limited access, although it could someday be invaded by drilling crews if the government so authorized.


The federal government opened up some of the land that it retained, south of the state’s newly acquired land, and the state subdivided its sector into a checkerboard of 2,560-acre tracts. Some 900,000 acres of this land were auctioned off in lease sales from 1964 to 1967, for which the state received $12,000,000 in “bonus bids.” These gave the purchaser the right to drill. If he struck oil, he would have to pay additional fees in royalties and taxes.

After a quick look at the geology of the area, Richfield (later Atlantic-Richfield) and Humble decided to gobble up a tenth of these leases and also to gamble on a costly effort to drill into a suspected anticline on federal land sixty miles south of Prudhoe Bay, between the Sag and Toolik rivers.

During the summer of 1965 and the following winter, a prodigious effort—involving what was reportedly the most ambitious nonmilitary airlift in Alaskan history—moved about four million pounds of pipe, rigging, fuel, bulldozers, house trailers, and trucks, plus a drill especially designed for use in a frigid climate, to the chosen site, christened Susie No. 1. By October, 1966, the drill had penetrated to 13,500 feet without striking oil. The bill for this “dry well” was $4,500,000.

However, the analysis of subsurface structures had revealed two promising anticlines, or humps, in buried strata near the coast, one near the Colville River and one at Prudhoe Bay. Each was about twenty square miles in area.

In the winter of 1967 the rig at Susie No. 1 was transported to Prudhoe Bay across the frozen tundra in fifty cat-train trips. On each trip three giant tractors hauled sleds carrying forty tons of cargo. On April 8, 1967, drilling began on what was to be the historic Prudhoe State No. l well (so called because it was leased from the state). Hardly a month had passed before the spring thaw weakened ice on the lake where supply planes were landing, and operations then had to be suspended for a long time.

Drilling began again in November, and a few weeks later there were indications that the drill was chewing its way through black shale or mudstone. If there was oil lower down, it could be trapped under such an impermeable layer.

At the start of 1968 came the first hint. Gas was detectable in the mud used for drilling. On January 16 Atlantic-Richfield, which was doing the drilling on behalf of itself and Humble, reported a “substantial flow of gas” from a depth of 8,500 feet.

Then, on a bitter February day, Jim Keasler, a drill engineer, decided to run a gas-flow test. The temperature was 40° below zero with a strong wind blowing as he rigged a flow line to carry any emerging gas far away from the wellhead.

At 2:13 P.M. , when he began to clear the drill pipe and allow gas to come to the surface, it was already dark. An hour later there was a roar and burst of fire as a jet of gas blew out of the flow line, sending flames fifty feet into the air. For an hour or more the flickering plume of fire lighted the snows of the North Slope, and a few days later oil had begun flowing from the well like water.


The flow from a thick sandstone layer 8,656 feet below the surface eventually rose to 2,415 barrels a day. Microscopic fossils from this layer showed that it had been laid down during the Triassic period, some two hundred million years ago.

Was this strike a fluke? Or had a major oil field been tapped? The oilmen were eager to find out by drilling a “confirmation” well on the Sag River, seven miles southeast of Prudhoe State No. 1.

Atlantic-Richfield and Humble contracted for use of an unused rig on the Colville. They hauled it down the frozen river to the Arctic Ocean and then over the sea ice between the offshore islands and the coast to Prudhoe Bay and the Sag River site.

When the drilling began it was spring, which normally would have brought operations to a halt, but in their eagerness the oilmen decided, for the first time, to drill through the summer. By dint of ingenious and expensive measures, such as covering the drill site and an airstrip with a five-foot layer of gravel to prevent thawing of the permafrost foundation, this was accomplished.

Throughout the summer the rig, Sag River State No. 1, drilled ever deeper. Within five months it had struck a threehundred-foot layer of sand in the same Triassic formation as that tapped by the Prudhoe well, and a test drew 2,300 barrels a day from the bottom fifteen feet of this layer.

The two oil companies then asked the prestigious and reputedly conservative oil consulting firm of DeGolyer and MacNaughton, in Dallas, to assess the field. Their reply: “In our opinion, this important discovery could develop into a field with recoverable reserves of some five to ten billion barrels of oil, which would rate it as one of the largest petroleum accumulations known to the world today.”

When news of the great strike came out, the ambitions of every man in the oil business caught fire. The most urgent problem for all was to decide which of the remaining blocks of unleased land was likely to be a fortune-maker. To this end as much information as possible had to be obtained by drilling on blocks already leased.

The result was a series of frantic battles with distance, cold, and other Arctic impediments. A combine of Mobil and Phillips Petroleum moved a rig by barge to the Prudhoe Bay area via Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River; British Petroleum also used barges, but made its approach from the west, through the Aleutians and the Bering Sea.

Meanwhile Walter J. Hickel, Alaska’s governor, soon to be named Secretary of the Interior, had decided to give the trucking companies a hand by building a “winter road” from the terminus of the Alaskan highway system at Livengood, 470 miles through the Brooks Range to Prudhoe Bay. The road would be usable only when the ground was frozen, and it was a race against time to finish it before the spring thaw.

Tractor trains, hauling giant sleds, had already made the trip in winter. One of them, with 380 tons of pipe for the Pan American Petroleum Corporation plus enough fuel to drive its tractors the entire route (there are no filling stations in the North), was creeping toward a well site sixty miles southwest of Prudhoe Bay (Kavik No. 1, not many miles ahead of the twenty-two-man road-building crew.


To carry the road across the Yukon at Stevens Village, the local Athabascan Indians were recruited. They laid logs, woven with metal cable, across the river ice and then pumped water from the river to cover the logs with ice. The construction crew reached this 1,500-foot bridge at the start of 1969 but were halted by a spell of extremely cold weather. Finally, on January 14, the temperature climbed to a “mild” 49° below zero, and they set forth in the almost continuous darkness with headlights helping the bulldozers as they gouged and slashed their way through the scrub forest.

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.

Because of the North Slope strike, the state of Alaska, long a stepchild heavily dependent on federal support, has suddenly become rich. In addition to the bids of almost a billion dollars, the oil companies will be paying large royalties and taxes on their production.

It has been a strange feature of the Alaskan economy that, just when it seems to be sinking into penury, something big and new comes along. First its wealth was in trapping and fishing. Russian fur traders and American salmon canners made their fortunes, but their heyday passed. Then there was the gold rush, but by the eve of World War II placer mining had largely exhausted the pay dirt of the gold fields. The war brought a new boom—and many white settlers—to Alaska, and today the federal government still spends some $750,000,000 a year on air bases, radar sites, and other installations (the state budget last vear was only $155,000,000).


With a billion in the till, Alaskans began to dream. One proposed a new state capital with the Mendenhall Glacier as a backdrop. Another suggested a monorail line to the North Slope. But it was also pointed out that the state was now in a position to treat its native minorities more generously than it had.

Most Americans, vividly familiar with urban ghetto problems nearer home, are unaware of the crisis of the Alaskan Eskimo and other native groups, particularly the Aleuts of the Aleutians and the Athabascan Indians of the interior.

On March 8, 1968, Senator Henry M. Jackson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, asked that a special committee look into the land claims of Alaskan natives. The picture painted in the voluminous report of this group is of an ancient culture in agonizing confrontation with modern society. Whereas the Indians of other states endured this crisis a century or more ago, for the Eskimo it is here and now.

In the past sixteen years, during which the Eskimo population has grown 50 per cent, deaths from suicide and alcoholism have doubled. Personality disorders rank third among the causes for hospitalization, second only to accidents (which lead the list and are in part attributed to alcoholism) and respiratory diseases.

Although improved public-health measures have led to an accelerated population growth, infant mortality and adult death rates are double those of white Alaskans. The tuberculosis incidence is twenty times that in the United States as a whole (despite major progress in cutting the rate). One in five Eskimos has never gone to school, and on the North Slope the average resident has not completed fourth grade.

While the ultimate crisis is now, the revolution in North Slope Eskimo life began in 1848 with the entry of New England whalers into the Bering and Chuck—chee seas. Traditionally the Tariamiut Eskimos of the coast were long-haul traders as well as hunters of whale, walrus, and seal. Sledding along the coast, they followed trade networks extending from Canada to Siberia; but the whalers soon put them out of business as they transported goods from one village to another.

Apparently because the coastal Eskimos began bartering with the whalers, rather than with the inland Eskimos, the nomadic culture of the latter gradually withered away. Today one of the few remaining inland colonies is that in Anaktuvuk Pass.

Under the impact of white development of their land, Alaskan Eskimos are facing a greatly accelerated change in their traditional way of life. While some, such as the DEW-line cat drivers at Barrow or those working around Prudhoe Bay, have become part of the modern culture, most coastal Eskimos are using the white man’s tools to try to continue their old ways. Harpoon guns and rifles have replaced the spear; outboard motorboats have displaced the skin-covered umiak. One even sees an occasional motorcycle leaning against an igloo, and snowmobiles have, in some instances, replaced dog teams.

It is within the family and village that the confrontation is most agonizing. Until the age of seven the typical Eskimo child lives in a home where only Eskimo is spoken. Then he goes to school and has to contend not only with another language but with a completely alien culture. If the student completes high school and comes home, he or she is now an alien in language and in knowledge. The boy is of little use to his father in the latter’s struggle to live off the land and has no status among other males of the village. The girl has not learned—or has forgotten—the arts of animal skinning and clothes making.

For many of these young people, graduation from high school has thrust them into a no-man’s-land between two cultures. They are unlikely to return to traditional Eskimo life; yet unless they go on to college (and few do), they find it hard to secure jobs in the white man’s world. It is understandable why so many Eskimos today turn to drink or suicide.

The immediate issue, of course, is the land-claim situation. The Eskimos do not have a tradition of land ownership. Ina state with 375,000,000 acres where, through courage and fortitude, the natives and their ancestors have won a living from an extremely inhospitable land, they own, outright, less than five hundred acres, according to the report to Senator Jackson’s committee. All told, 37,400 live in settlements on public domain. In Alaska as a whole, whites now outnumber the natives four to one, but the whites are concentrated in a few centers. Over most of the vastness of Alaskan territory it is the natives that numerically prevail.

Beginning with such incursions as DEW-line construction and Pet 4 exploration, the natives began to organize: by now there are some twenty-one regional and community organizations. In 1966 the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives was organized “to seek an equitable adjustment of Native affairs and Native claims.”

The land claims filed by these groups cover about 80 per cent of the state, including some of the richest oil lands. As the North Slope bids were being opened inside the Anchorage auditorium last September, pickets outside carried signs that read: “$2,000,000,000 land robbery” and “Eskimos own North Slope.” Leaflets handed out to passers-by said: “Today’s lease is perpetrating of economic genocide on a native minority.”

When the clamor of the Eskimos reached Washington, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall called a halt to further release of federal land, pending settlement of the claims issue. President Johnson, in a message to Congress on March 6, 1968, said: The land rights of the Native people of Alaska—the Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indians—have never been fully or fairly defined. Eighty-four years ago, Congress protected the Alaska Natives in the use and occupancy of their lands. But then, and again when Alaska was given statehood, Congress reserved to itself the power of final decision on ultimate title. It remains our unfinished task to state in law the terms and conditions of settlement, so that uncertainty can be ended for the Native people of Alaska.

It was two days later that Senator Jackson set in motion a study of the situation. As noted earlier, the resulting report found the situation of the Eskimo almost catastrophic and recommended a settlement that would set up a corporation, with the natives as shareholders, to conduct educational and development projects. The Jackson committee modified this scheme, proposing two corporations: the Alaska Native Services Corporation and the Alaska Native Investment Corporation. Two per cent of federal income from mineral and oil leases would go to these native-owned corporations until the total reached $500,000,000.

An alternate proposal by the Interior Department would involve a flat payment of $500,000,000 to the natives. Incidentally, Walter Hickel, when he was governor of Alaska, revealed his impatience with the land freeze imposed by Udall, which he felt was throttling the state’s development. Since he was known to have extensive business interests in Alaska, Hickel was closely questioned by the Senate Interior Committee during hearings on his nomination as Secretary of the Interior, and he pledged to continue the freeze until this year.

But by January of 1970, with the oil companies clamoring for permission to build a giant pipeline from the North Slope to the south coast of Alaska, Hickel had lowered the barriers in two respects. He had given permission for construction of an all-year road for hauling pipeline materials to the Yukon, and he had set the stage for releasing land along the pipeline route, once the engineering plans had been finally approved.

The pipeline project is one of two apparently feasible solutions to the greatest problem facing the oil companies: getting the oil out to populated areas. The second solution is the use of giant tankers to bully their way through the Arctic ice.

Humble Oil assigned its 1,005-foot Manhattan to test the sea route. This, the largest tanker flying the American flag, was cut into four sections so that modification work could proceed at maximum speed. Eventually all parts, including a new bow, were brought together and reassembled.

On August 24, 1969, the ship left Delaware Bay with a group that included seventy-two scientists, oil company representatives, Canadian officials, and newsmen. Its bow, reaching ahead like the neck of a flying waterfowl, was aimed north. The ship sailed between Greenland and Baffin Island and turned west to fight its way through the ice-clogged channels of the Arctic Archipelago in the hope of achieving what so many earlier mariners had attempted—the Northwest Passage.

The ship, displacing 150,000 tons and with engines developing 42,000 horsepower, plowed its way through the ice as no ship ever had before. But when it was first brought to a dead halt, off Melville Island, on September 9, its weakness also became apparent. The bulk of this monster was so enormous that, once dead in the water, it was hard to get it moving again, particularly if the ice pressed close, leaving no room to back and charge. The final frustration came in McClure Strait, and the giant ship had to give up and take a detour around Banks Island.

On September 14 it broke through the ice into open water that stretched as far as the sailors could see toward the Alaskan coast. While small exploration ships and a Canadian icebreaker had made the Northwest Passage since Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated attempts, this was the first commercial ship to do so. A week later it arrived off Point Barrow, to be greeted by Secretary Hickel and other officials. (The Manhattan could not reach Prudhoe Bay because of shallow water, and, in fact, if tankers are used to haul out the oil, some sort of staging system will be necessary.)

Meanwhile, throughout 1969, preparations for construction of the TransAlaska Pipeline Systems, or TAPS, went forward, even though the Interior Department had not yet granted permission for the project (which would require making an exception to the general freeze on land allocations). When Secretary Hickel authorized the TAPS oil companies to build an all-year road from Livengood to the Yukon so that pipe for the project could be hauled that far north, he remarked that “the performance on this road construction will bear direct relevance to our subsequent response to the eight-hundred-mile pipeline application. ” The road was the first leg of a projected 390-mile all-year link to Prudhoe Bay.

The pipeline will be mammoth, with a four-foot girth. The eight hundred miles of pipe are being imported from Japan. With pumping stations, terminal facilities, and access roads it will cost some $900,000,000. TAPS was originally a consortium of Atlantic-Richfield, BP, and Humble, but more companies have joined in. They hoped to have the oil flowing by 1972. However, legal action initiated by conservation groups led to the issuance, on April 13, 1970, of a federal court order enjoining Hickel from issuing a right-of-way permit for extending the road from the Yukon to Prudhoe Bay, pending settlement of a dispute on rightof-way width and further assessment of the environmental effects.

Of the many formidable problems raised by this project the most serious arise from the high temperature of the oil—and hence of the pipe itself. The oil, heated in the bowels of the earth, comes out of the ground at about 160°, and, from the friction of its high-speed flow through the pipe and the energy introduced by pumping, it may be even hotter when it reaches Valdez at its southern terminus.

Thus, if the pipe were laid directly on permafrost, it would melt itself into the ground, forming a giant trench and causing severe erosion. Where there were wedges of ice in otherwise solid ground, a cavity would form under the pipe which could produce a rupture. With 500,000 gallons of fast-moving oil in every mile of pipe, such a rupture would deluge the landscape. On a slope, a sudden mudflow could carry away part of the pipe, producing the same effect. To reach Valdez the pipe must cross the Fairweather Fault, where slippage produced one of the most violent earthquakes of modern times, bringing Anchorage down in ruins and causing severe damage in Valdez.

The obvious route for the line, insofar as possible, is along rivers where the permafrost lies deep and gravel for insulation is plentiful. But a break there could have particularly disastrous effects. A spill along the proposed route of the pipe beside the Dietrich River, after it has crossed the 4,650-foot Dietrich Pass, would send oil rushing down that stream and ultimately, via the Yukon, to the sea.

This would affect spawning beds, waterfowl breeding areas, and the entire wildlife regime of the area. Another danger is disturbance of the spawning beds either by upstream silting during construction or by destruction of the beds themselves through removal of their gravel. Salmon and arctic char fight their long upstream battles to lay their eggs on flat gravel beds beneath clearflowing water.

Another concern has been the effect of the pipeline as a barrier to caribou migrations. For a considerable distance the pipeline will be carried across permafrost areas on stilts. A pipe four feet in diameter standing on two-foot stilts would be a formidable obstacle to the caribou. Undisturbed northward movement of the herds in spring is vital to their survival since, in order to reach the calving grounds when the young are born, they must cross the mountain passes before the snow gets soft. Otherwise the calves are dropped too early and abandoned.

Since the rivers themselves present ever-changing obstacles to migration, the animals may learn to bypass such an impediment. Early fears that their movements would be disturbed by roads and other such works of man seem unfounded: herds have moved freely across airstrips and, in dark periods, some even have been known to rest on drill pads. It may also be possible, at natural crossing points, to raise the pipe enough to permit the passage of herds.

Bears, among other animals, are finding their life pattern disturbed by the incursions of the oil companies, but they seem to be taking a certain amount of counteraction on their own. I was told of an emergency situation that arose at a scientific station on an ice floe large enough to accommodate a ski-plane landing strip. A supply plane was en route during the polar night, and when the switch was thrown to turn on the runway lights, nothing happened. The men, warmly bundled, checked the line of lights and found, from tracks in the snow, that a polar bear had systematically gone up the runway swatting each light with his paw.

Because of such incursions, oil prospecting teams are often armed. Bears are easy marks on the open terrain, and so many have been shot that this spring the grizzly hunting season was closed.

In the foothills the barren ground grizzly has upset the best-laid plans of oil prospectors and others. He will break into a food cache and bite into each can, sucking out the contents. In one case of which I was told some of the cans contained gasoline, and one was full of smoke bombs used to indicate wind direction to arriving bush pilots. Apparently one of the bombs went off when the bear bit into it, and the bear ran amok, tearing a tent to ribbons and hurling boxes for fifty yards in all directions.

The planned route of the pipe from the Dietrich Pass is across (or more probably under) the Yukon to Fairbanks, and then down the highway system to Valdez. The Interior Department has produced two book-sized volumes of stipulations for approval of TAPS. They include the posting of a $5,000,000 bond against damage done by spills, and the presence of federal monitors with construction crews to see that they do not excessively damage the terrain. Also, the pipeline must go under streams unless otherwise authorized by the Interior Department, and detailed contingency plans must be made in case of spills.

In April the oil companies, which had hoped to start work on the pipeline this summer, suffered a setback. The United States Geological Survey advised Secretary Hickel that the pipeline plan, as presently constituted, did not give adequate assurance that the environment would be protected. In particular, said the specialists, it was evident that the pipe should not be buried along most of the route, as was the intent of the TAPS project. It was estimated that the pipe would melt the ground to a depth of fifty feet, converting frozen silt into an impassable canal. At least 40 per cent of the 800-mile pipe would have to be above the ground, the experts said. This, plus the legal actions of pipeline opponents, indicated a delay of at least a year.

Once the line is built, some Alaskan conservationists fear the state will not pay much attention to oil spills and other insults to the environment. They note that in Cook Inlet, where since 1965 there have been more than 150 recorded spills from offshore rigs, tankers, barges, and the like, only five violators were prosecuted. The state, when Hickel was governor, enacted unusually strict antipollution laws; but personnel to enforce them are in short supply.

One of the most sobering bits of ecological news last year was a report from the Woods Hole Océanographie Institution in Massachusetts that global oil spillage has reached the point where even little-travelled waters in mid-ocean are coated with scum. One of the few oceans largely spared such pollution has been the Arctic. But what if a tanker like the Manhattan —or one of the proposed far larger type—is punctured by ice?

Some have suggested that such an oil spill could blacken the polar ice sufficiently to cause its melting, bringing about a change of local climate that would tip the scales of global air currents and produce a new ice age—probably a farfetched idea; but such a spill would have profound effects on the fragile balance of life in the Arctic.

In an introduction to one of Bob Marshall’s books Professor A. Starker Leopold, of the University of California, wrote: “It is characteristic of frontier societies, and Alaska still is such, to become so engrossed in the process of development as to fail to look ahead to the point of diminishing returns beyond which more development becomes a social liability rather than an asset.”

Marshall himself argued that “If Alaska were to remain primarily a great reservoir of resources, largely untapped at present, but available for future use, it would seem as if that balance which should be a major feature of sound planning would best be realized.”

A critical issue in this respect is whether the world’s oil reserves will last until alternate sources of power have been developed. Current progress toward development of fusion reactors that would tame the power of the hydrogen bomb has led many to predict that by the end of the century we will be free from overwhelming dependence on oil as our energy source.

Recent offshore exploration north of Alaska and the Canadian oil strike at the mouth of the Mackenzie also indicate that extensive oil deposits lie in that vast region. The extension of continental structure—the so-called continental shelf of shallow water—fringing Alaska is as large as the state itself. Of all continental shelf along United States shores, half is off Alaska.

Thus plenty of oil seems to be there. One can argue that were it not for the subsidy of American producers by means of import restrictions, it would not be economical to exploit at this time.

“Only with the continuation of a reasonable import control program,” said Rawleigh Warner, Jr., chairman of Mobil, early in 1970, “will it be economically desirable for oil companies to continue their search for additional reserves in remote and difficult areas such as this.” A similar view has been expressed by Michael L. Haider, chairman of Standard of New Jersey, who predicted that Alaskan oil will not be able to compete with Middle Eastern oil on world markets.

There is little doubt, however, that the imports of competitive oil will continue to be controlled, and that North Slope exploitation will proceed. The great responsibility of the American people and their government, therefore, is to see that the oil is extracted without destroying this continent’s last great wilderness.

The life of the North Slope and its fringing seas is not precious merely for sentimental reasons. It is of great biological importance. The manner in which these life forms have adapted to a harsh environment is unique. It is the fruit of millions of years of slow evolution. The lessons that these plants and animals can teach us for our own survival and welfare are many, but some of these organisms could be completely wiped out in a decade.

Aa single example, Dr. Laurence Irving, of the University of Alaska, cites a warbler that winters in a certain spot in Venezuela, then migrates through the Anaktuvuk Pass to find, “with the accuracy of an intercontinental missile,” its nesting place on the North Slope. The warbler’s weight of ten grams, he points out, “contains the entire machinery for guidance of its navigation, for its memory and operation in flight, and for determining its initiation.”

What a loss to all humanity—and all nature—if such a creature were wiped out by careless tampering with the environment!

The face of the land could also be altered radically. If the tundra is destroyed and the muddy ice that underlies it melts and flows away, the surface in many areas will be below sea level. It would then not be long before Alaskan territory would be correspondingly reduced.

This, then, is a great challenge to American wisdom and ingenuity. There is no doubt but that the oil companies are trying to meet it. “Don’t you like your stockholders?” said Dr. Max Brewer, head of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, as he showed a photograph of Prudhoe Bay State No. 1, immersed in a mud held, to an oil company man. His point was that it is far more economical to make the initial investment and insulate the permafrost.

The oil companies reportedly have now agreed among themselves not to move equipment across the tundra during the four or five months of the summer thaw. They are using air-cushioned hovercraft and the big helicopters known as flying cranes to hop from one site to another. Two drill rigs that can be broken down into eighteen-thousandpound units were ferried across the tundra last summer in this way, although one flying crane crashed disastrously.

The oilmen are also planning to drill four to six wells from a single pad, boring obliquely to cover a 640-acre sector of the oil reservoir. This will reduce both cost, in terms of pad construction, and disturbance of the tundra. AtlanticRichfield and Humble have built a twohundred-man camp at Prudhoe at a cost of $7,500,000, of which $2,000,000 was for the sewage and water-supply system. Both are a major challenge in a permafrost region.

From the days of the first European settlers the American tradition has been one of conquest—conquest of hostile tribes, of a hostile environment, and of vast distances. As pointed out by Starker Leopold, this spirit persists. It is reflected in the indignant comment of Alaska’s Senator Ted Stevens, who dismissed the Interior Department’s pipeline stipulations as “stupid, absolutely stupid.”

“Alaskans know Alaska,” he told the Alaska Science Conference in 1969. “I’m fed up to here with people who try to tell us how to develop our country.”

“Tomorrow,” said Alaska’s Governor Keith H. Miller on the eve of the great 1969 lease sale, “we will reach out to claim our birthright. We will rendezvous with our dreams.”

A more sensitive expression of that pioneer spirit was written by Robert W. Service:

I am the land that listens, I am the land that broods; Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods … Wild and wide are my borders, stem as death is my sway, And I wait for the men who will win me—and I will not be won in a day.

Today we stand face-to-face with the Arctic Ocean. The North Slope is the end of the line for American conquest—the North Slope and the moon.

It has been argued that it is more difficult for us, with our Judaeo-Christian tradition, to live in harmony with nature than it is for those raised in Asiatic cultures. As noted by Philip Johnson, an ecologist with the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, at the conference on North Slope ecology last year, the Garden of Eden typifies the view of a world made for our benefit. The dominant attitude of our culture, Dr. Johnson said, “is egocentric about man and exploitive about nature.”

Yet, as he pointed out, any species that overwhelms its environment invites destruction. Such a species either exhausts its food supply or becomes so prolific that some devastating predator evolves to devour it. We have evaded this law of nature so far but cannot do so indefinitely.

Perhaps, in this respect, we should not forget what the Eskimo says to us: “Take your planes, and cars, and washing machines, and supermarkets. Throw them all away and I can still live. Even on the Arctic pack, I can live. ”

There are anthropologists who believe the Eskimo and his culture will survive the present onslaught. The Arctic, they say, is too harsh for normal settlement by the white man, but it will always be able to support Eskimos in the traditional manner.

If we can save the Arctic for the Eskimos, perhaps we can save the rest of the continent for ourselves.


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