Refuge Coastal Plain View of Brooks Range

This is the 1002 Area, the land targeted by the Bush administration for oil field development. Those eager to drill and pump call it a wasteland, barren, that nothing lives here. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) says it's "ugly".

And yet when you spend time on the coastal plain the facts are otherwise. the west of the Canning River.
The coastal plain is home to dozens of species of wildlife. In fact, the refuge hosts 36 fish species, 26 land mammals, nine marine mammals, and more than 160 migratory and resident bird species. The golden plover flies from Argentina to nest here while the arctic tern travels the furthest, more than 10,000 miles from its summer habitat in Antarctica. The coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge. Along the channeled streams, a thick mat of sedges and grasses provide food and shelter for songbirds -- rosy finches, bluethroats, arctic warblers, crossbills and others. Perhaps as many as 300 grizzly bears prowl both sides of the Continental Divide. Black bears favor the forested south. Polar bears remain on the sea ice during the summer but females come ashore in the winter to den in coastal snowdrifts. It is here on the coastal plain that caribou calve their young. Most travelers who float or hike across the area don't see the main herd which is now estimated at 130,000, but are likely see groups of several hundred or smaller. Yet signs of caribou are everywhere. Along streams, caribou hair reefs up like discarded garlands on wet sand. The braided tracks of their 400-mile passage to and from wintering grounds in the Yukon Territory, Canada are as old as time. On a change of wind, the smell of caribou dung wrinkles the nose like a Chicago stock yard.

In the last two years, late-season snow forced females to drop their calves before reaching the plains. Calf survival rates are down significantly. The role of the coastal plain in the herd's productive capacity is integral to its success.

It's predictable that opponents of the refuge's integrity try to minimize its value. Calling the coastal plain ugly or a wasteland is an attempt to diminish its ecological value. Biological analysis of the coastal plain's importance to refuge continuity is ignored. No wonder oil companies and their White House hirelings boast that Congress will sacrifice the coastal plain in order to prolong the sovereignty of automobiles. Yet when most people understand the values at stake the issue resolves in favor of caution, protection. Alternative energy development efforts and conservation advocates have demonstrated that drilling and pumping the refuge is unnecessary. More oil can be saved through developing wind, solar, fuel cells and hybrid cars than is likely to be found under the coastal plain.

Few people visit the refuge, but those who travel north are rewarded with gifts of solitude, majesty and wonder. In an increasingly urbanized continent, few places remain that offer these experiences. Loss of wildlands cannot be tolerated if we wish to sustain ourselves as free people. The coastal plain nourishes a pulse as vital as the beat of a poet's heart. We ignore its message at our peril.

Caribou and oilfield
Deadhorse, Alaska and the Prudhoe Bay oilfields
Caribou and oilfield
Caribou, part of the Central Arctic herd, grazes near a Prudhoe Bay oil field facility
Waste management, Prudhoe Bay
Waste management at Prudhoe Bay



Image © 1991-95 by Douglas Yates

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