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Writer-photographer James Balog has been "commuting" to Alaska from his home in Boulder, Colorado, since the 1980s, but it wasn't until June 2001 that he first entered the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). With two friends, he climbed the pristine peaks of the Brooks Range and paddled a 75-mile (120-kilometer) stretch of the Hulahula River to the Beaufort Sea.
Balog also realized, in the course of his two-week ramble, that one of the most exceptional landscapes on the planet is now in danger of being destroyed. The question that made headlines in the beginning of 2001to drill or not to drillhas continued to fuel an ongoing debate among politicians, conservationists, and environmentalists.
Within ANWR is a slice of coastal plain the size of Ireland (1.5 million acres/607,030 hectares), called 1002 (ten-oh-two). It is believedthough not proventhat this area, like the neighboring Prudhoe Bay region, is rich in oil.
The oil yield could be as high as ten billion barrels, enough for 600 days of U.S. consumption, or as low as two billion barrels, enough for 100 days' wortha relatively small amount, some would say, considering the impact drilling could have on the region's ecology and culture.
This is an area across which the 130,000-strong Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates, where 135 species of birds live, and where scientists can study the largest intact, naturally functioning, Arctic ecosystem.
Drilling's ripple effect would likely extend beyond ecological impact and into the cultural realm. The Gwich'in and Inupiat people here are dependent on caribou and native marine species for survival.
In the audio files at left, Balog discusses the issues surrounding ANWR and what he thinks are the biggest hazards, the most challenging hurdles, and the best potential solutions.
Katie McDowellFor morephotos, video, a printable map, and a pollvisit National Geographic magazine's ANWR page >>
Photographs by James Balog; Balog portrait by Jay Koelzer
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