Why risk a great natural heritage for short-term gain?
SHOULD we dam the Grand Canyon for its hydroelectric potential to reduce our reliance on oil? The idea was discussed, but dismissed as unnecessary. Should we tap the geothermal potential of Yellowstone to enhance our energy security? It's a possibility, but again one that Americans realized was unwarranted.The Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are splendid samples of America's natural heritage. Both are well worth bequeathing to future generations. So, too, is the Arctic Refuge. The Arctic Refuge is "the only conservation system unit in North America that protects, in an undisturbed condition, the complete spectrum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems," according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Originally established in 1960 by President Eisenhower, and expanded in 1980 by Congress, America's Arctic Refuge harbors grizzly and polar bears, musk oxen and moose, wolves and wolverines. White-fronted geese, tundra swans, and black brant nest in coastal lagoons and tundra ponds. Bowhead whales and ringed seals ply the frigid waters along its northern coast. The biological heart of the sanctuary, a 1.5-million-acre swath of undulating coastal plain wedged between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea, is the birthing grounds for a herd of 180,000 barren-ground caribou. Dr. George Schaller, a director of the New York Zoological Society, compares the Porcupine River caribou herd with such wildlife spectacles as the wildebeests of Serengeti, the gazelles of Mongolia, and the antelopes of Tibet. For thousands of years, Inupiat and Gwich'in peoples have subsisted in the region - harvesting the natural bounty, nurturing a culture intertwined with the wilderness and wildlife - and they wish to continue. The Inupiat oppose offshore development in the Beaufort Sea, just as the Gwich'in fight drilling on the coastal plain. Those who propose drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge in response to our energy woes perpetuate the "drain-America-first" policy that put us in this predicament. Implementing least-cost energy-efficiency programs could provide seven to 10 times more in oil savings than might be found in the Arctic Refuge, a much better bet considering the one-in-five odds any oil might be found. Oil companies push for development, rather than energy efficiency, because oil companies in Alaska netted $41 billion in prof its since oil development began. Using oil more prudently means less profit for them. To drill for this oil, the same industry which assured us that a catastrophe like the Exxon Valdez would never occur now claims it can develop the Arctic Refuge in an "environmentally sensitive manner." The "footprint" of their operations would be no larger, they say, than an area the size of Dulles Airport. They say they learned from their experiences at Prudhoe Bay. But a look at agency records and studies shows otherwise. According to the Interior Department, drilling would require hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, 60 gravel drill pads and waste pits, production facilities, seawater treatment plants, airports, seaports, worker housing, and more. Prudhoe Bay itself sprawls over 800 square miles, one of the world's largest industrial complexes, where each year tens of thousands of tons of air pollutants are pumped into the atmosphere, tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil, diesel fuel, and toxic chemicals are spilled, and an aging pipeline is weakened by corrosion. Caribou populations have increased at Prudhoe Bay, but "this increase corresponds to similar increases in all major herds of caribou and is presumed to be independent of the effects of oil development. In addition, wolves and grizzly bears, important predators of caribou, declined in association with oil development," according to Dr. David Klein, a wildlife expert. Prudhoe Bay no longer functions as a natural ecosystem. Among other effects, polar bears stopped denning onshore; more than 15,000 birds hav e died or been displaced by destruction of habitat; and man-made gravel islands and seawater treatment plants kill or displace hundreds of thousands of fish. Is it necessary to sustain these environmental impacts in the Arctic Refuge? Do we really need to drill for oil there? We can do without, just as we have done without hydropower from the Grand Canyon and geothermal from Yellowstone. We can save for future generations our last Arctic wilderness.