It covers 23.5 million acres and is home to several Inupiat Eskimo communities, half a million caribou, ancient archaeological sites, and the largest polar dinosaur fossil bed on earth
— and it’s completely open to oil and gas development. Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve is the largest parcel of public land in the United States, and you know almost nothing about it — if you’ve even heard of it at all.
Author Debbie Miller says you should. Her new book, On Arctic Ground: Tracking Time Through Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, collects photographs and essays on the wild, unprotected reserve — including a preface written by former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit. Miller has spent 40 years of her life exploring Alaska’s Arctic and canoed and hiked more than 600 miles along four of the reserve’s rivers. She’s also put together a book that captures the spirit and importance of an area she says made her feel “like Lewis and Clark.”
What’s important to know about this place?
Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve is an extraordinary place with a misfortunate name. The name certainly does not reflect the full character of America’s largest block of public land remaining in the U.S. The reserve is roughly the size of Maine, with a rich diversity of wildlife, cultural history, and stunning wild landscapes. It was created in 1923 by President Warren Harding, set aside as petroleum reserve for emergency defense purposes, in light of WWI and the Navy’s future need for oil.
While there has been limited oil and gas exploration since the 1940s, most of the reserve is pristine and undeveloped. This vast, roadless wilderness contains the northern edge of the Brooks Range, foothills, grasslands, and a sweeping coastal area that contains wetlands habitat for hundreds of thousands of geese, swans, loons, ducks, and migratory shorebirds. On the northern fringes of the reserve, near the Arctic Ocean, walrus and seals haul out, beluga whales calve and molt, and polar bears roam the shoreline.
What kept bringing you back?
For three summers I explored the reserve with a team of photographers. We felt like Lewis and Clark as we paddled and hiked across this frontier landscape. We rarely saw another human being. We were so far off the grid that we didn’t even see or hear airplanes. We were more than 100 miles from the nearest small village. As a lover of wild places, I savored every moment spent in this remote area, and I felt honored to collaborate with other photographers and writers to create the first book on this magnificent region of the world. We were stunned by the beauty, immense vistas, wild rivers, and the array of wildlife: wolves, bears, migratory birds, and tens of thousands of caribou.
AJ: Is there a middle ground between “drill, baby, drill,” and protecting the land there?
I would love to see all of the reserve kept wild and not industrialized, particularly as we transition from burning fossil fuels to developing cleaner sources of energy. There are so few places left on earth that are so wild, vibrant with life, and untrammeled by man. It would be a shame and short-sighted to drill, baby, drill it all away.
There is some good news. The current administration recognizes that there are special areas in the reserve that need protection. Right now the Department of Interior is in the final stages of developing its first management plan for the whole reserve. Secretary Salazar recently announced that he supports the B-2 management alternative, which would keep half of the reserve off limits from oil and gas leasing. These protected special areas include sensitive habitats for America’s largest caribou herd and many species of migratory birds that travel to the Arctic from six continents. Many of us feel that this is a balanced approach to resource development. Half of the reserve would still be open to oil and gas leasing, under stringent regulations, while the most biologically sensitive areas would be off limits.
A management plan can be changed in the future, but this is a strong first step toward reaching the more distant goal of permanently protecting these special areas.
What are the biggest risks in mismanaging an area like this?
There are many risks associated with oil development. The State of Alaska leases millions of acres to the oil industry around Prudhoe Bay. Today, there are more than 30 producing oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope with a spiderweb network of roads, pipelines, and drilling facilities that fans out for more than 100 miles. Roughly 1,000 square miles of the Arctic have been consumed by industry. The wilderness character of these developed areas is gone, and caribou no longer use these noisy areas for their calving grounds. Local Inupiat Eskimo residents have a more difficult time locating and hunting caribou, as they’ve moved away from developed areas.
Each year there are hundreds of oil spills on Alaska’s North Slope, particularly since some of the fields are aging. Toxic oil spills, air pollution, and loss of habitat and wilderness are major impacts associated with oil development.
You’ve been exploring this area for 40 years. What’s changed and what would you like to see in the next 40 years?
The conservation community has worked diligently for three decades to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The Arctic refuge is still wild and whole, thanks to the voices of many Americans. The two million acre coastal plain of the Arctic refuge represents the only sliver of arctic coastline that is off-limits for oil and gas development. The other 95 percent of Alaska’s North Slope, including the 23 million acres in the reserve and 14 million acres of state lands, is open to oil and gas leasing. Not one of those acres to the west of the Arctic refuge is permanently protected from oil exploration and development. Over the past 40 years, oil development has swept across the North Slope, largely on state lands between the reserve and the Arctic refuge.
The scales have always been tipped in favor of resource development for America’s Arctic. My hope is that both the federal and state governments will adopt a more balanced approach to oil development. Such an approach should foster the development of clean energy sources, while protecting places like the reserve and the Arctic refuge for its stunning wildlife, wilderness, and cultural history/subsistence values. America has only one region that we call the Arctic. We can be foolish, selfish, and short-sighted — drill-baby-drill all of it, or we can look to the future and adopt a more balanced approach, protecting key areas for future generations of wildlife and humans.
The proposed management plan for the reserve is a good first step in striving to achieve a balance between oil development and protecting conservation values within the special areas.
Photo by Patrick Endres