Mention Arctic wildlife and most people imagine an area on the eastern end of Alaska’s North Slope: the beleaguered Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But to the west of Prudhoe Bay there’s an additional 23 million acres of unsung wilderness: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. It’s even larger than the Arctic refuge, and teeming with wildlife.
Though the reserve’s name makes it sound like a giant oil tank waiting to be tapped, it holds much more. This western Arctic wilderness, the largest federal holding in the United States—the reserve is the size of Indiana—is home to hundreds of thousands of caribou; grizzlies, and wolves in numbers long ago erased from the Lower 48; and skeins of birds. Now and then a surreptitious wolverine, too lanky and long-legged to be a bear, appears in the low rays of the midnight sun. From the river bluffs hundreds of falcons and eagles take wing. And on the reserve’s fringes, where it slips under the Beaufort Sea to the north and the Chukchi Sea to the west, it is refuge to seals and birthing belugas and the terrestrial domain of polar bears. A bleak and empty land suited only for oil development? No way.
Thirty-five years ago Congress mandated that “maximum protection” for the reserve’s fish, wildlife, and other natural “surface values” be balanced against any energy exploration and development. The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska was even considered for national wildlife refuge status. The 1976 act further authorized the Interior Secretary to establish “special area” protections for regions of particular importance to wildlife, specifically Teshekpuk Lake and the Utukok Uplands, for their rich waterfowl and caribou habitats. The Colville River and Kasegaluk Lagoon followed later for their own superlative and unique habitats.
But that “maximum protection” has never been realized. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations since Jimmy Carter, the reserve’s wildlife has enjoyed only a series of localized and temporary protections.
The Reagan years saw the NPR-A’s first oil lease sales. The George W. Bush administration sold the most; in 2004 alone Bush sold leases covering roughly 1.4 million acres and nearly blanketing the primary concentration of the reserve’s yellow-billed loon breeding grounds. Two years later Bush attempted to lease the most critical and irreplaceable habitat around Teshekpuk Lake—in fact, everything but the lake bed itself. Audubon Alaska and five other conservation groups sued to prevent the leases—and won. The effect of the court ruling was to return the environmental analysis back to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which announced in 2008 that it would defer leasing the most sensitive goose-molting wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake until 2018.
The business of selling oil leases took a hit recently when the U.S. Geological Survey reduced its estimate of how much crude oil could be pumped from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska by more than 90 percent—from 10.6 billion barrels to 896 million (500 million at current market prices). As a result, oil companies gave up many of their leases, including most of those beneath the yellow-bills’ primary breeding grounds.
Still, the tug-of-war between energy and environment is far from over. The United States Geological Survey describes gas stores within the reserve as “phenomenal,” and Alaskan politicians are eager to open the valve. A recent headline in the Anchorage Daily News read, “Alaska must be aggressive on gas pipeline, [Alaskan Senator Mark] Begich says.”
Meanwhile, the hottest oil prospects remaining in the reserve appear to lie directly beneath the goose-molting area and caribou calving grounds next to Teshekpuk Lake.
There is good news, however. Even as the energy companies bore into the tundra, there could be a chance—unprecedented in the history of the reserve—to protect key wildlife areas from further drilling and establish conservation measures across the entire region. The BLM is currently working on a “comprehensive plan,” an evaluation of all the reserve’s resources that would give the BLM the opportunity to delineate zones for lease sales while protecting key habitats in special areas like Teshekpuk. The plan, to be shaped by public comment that closes on June 15, 2012, may be the last hope for providing the mandated conservation balance in the reserve as terrific pressures mount to “drill, baby, drill,” and as industrial infrastructure creeps west from Prudhoe Bay to the Colville River Delta, where ConocoPhillips is seeking permission to build a bridge, road, and pipeline into the reserve.
“The proposed road and bridge project would be the first permanent infrastructure for oil development within the NPR-A, and the manner in which this proceeds has important implications for future development,” says Eric Myers, Audubon Alaska’s policy director. “What’s most important is how and where any development takes place. And that the new BLM planning effort offers the opportunity to avoid the kind of industrial sprawl we see across the central Arctic from Prudhoe Bay.”
Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake north of the Brooks Range, is so big it creates its own weather—a layer of sea fog avoided by pilots. Hundreds of thousands of birds migrate here to nest each summer, returning from five continents and all the world’s oceans. “These wetlands are internationally recognized as the most important goose-molting habitat in the circumpolar north,” says Eric Taylor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s waterfowl management branch chief in Alaska. But it wasn’t birds alone that caught the attention of Congress in 1976.
The most prominent signs of mammalian life are the caribou trails that cross the tundra and the small, pearly white antlers dropped by the cows after they give birth in mid-June. The Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd has traditionally birthed its young northeast, east, and southeast of the lake. The slowly growing herd—68,000 strong when last counted, in 2009—migrates around the big lake from calving areas to insect-relief areas (windier locations near sea or lake or on ridges, where mosquitoes and bot flies cannot swarm). The herd passes through two narrow corridors between Teshekpuk and the Beaufort Sea—a route that industrial intrusion could obstruct.
Drop down the Utukok River and you drift into Kasegaluk Lagoon, a large expanse of shallow waters separated from the Chukchi Sea by 125 miles of sand and cobble barrier islands that, come summer, are as picturesque as Caribbean strands, though a bit cooler.
Up to a thousand ice-loving and potentially threatened spotted seals (fodder for polar bears) gather on the barrier islands on summer days. More and more walruses haul out here as well, as the Arctic warms and their preferred sea ice retreats northward. Beluga whales arrive in small groups to form their greatest congregations along the Chukchi coast. They molt here in the shallows, where the gravel provides a place for them to roll and dance to rub off their old skin. Some take advantage of the protected waters to give birth. Abundant fish and shrimp feed the seals and whales, which, along with the walruses, provide subsistence food for the local Inupiat. Threatened polar bears stalk these strands; more and more often the pregnant females den here come winter, rather than swimming out to the retreating sea ice.
On the broad Colville River Delta, great congregations of brant and white-fronted geese and a well-studied scattering of yellow-billed loons raise their young. It is here on this delta that ConocoPhillips wishes to build a road, bridge, and oil pipeline across the Nigliq Channel—the eastern boundary of the reserve—to a new project known as CD-5 (Colville Delta Number 5). By entering the reserve with a road directly on the path toward those critical habitats around Teshekpuk Lake, the project would contradict a provision that was intended to avoid the needless construction of roads in the Colville River Delta. As much as a single road—much less a bridge and oil pipeline—would set the stage for more permanent roads and the industrial sprawl everyone promised to avoid. Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit first time around—rare for the Corps in these parts—though it’s reconsidering.
When the BLM announced its planning process in July 2010, Audubon Alaska and four other conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, seized the opportunity to make recommendations for permanent protection strategies in both the four existing special areas and four proposed new special areas. The proposed special areas would basically expand and complete the original designated areas.
This is not an effort to lock up the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska against development, say conservationists. Neither is it an attempt to prevent the region’s oil from being drilled. Much of the reserve would remain open for drilling, including many tracts within special areas where it might occur under certain conditions or restrictions (including directional drilling to reservoirs beneath critical habitat). “Within an area the size of Indiana, it’s entirely appropriate that there be key places protected and set aside for wildlife,” says Nils Warnock, Audubon Alaska’s executive director, “and the protection of wildlife and special areas was one of Congress’ stated goals.”
The politics seem far off to me, here in the gathering golden light of an Arctic morning. In this primeval setting, it is the loon’s song that will celebrate and defend its territory. But in a larger way, both the celebration and defense—in this case, stewardship—of 23 million acres of one of our nation’s only Arctic ecosystems will depend upon the voices of humans, who also speak for this wild earth.
Jeff Fair is a writer and wildlife biologist who lives near Palmer, Alaska. Excerpted from Audubon (November/December 2011), the century-old flagship publication of the National Audubon Society.