In the petroleum-rich wilderness Alaskans simply call “the slope,” big money, power politics, and hype run as thick as the mosquitoes. It is the wildest part of the wildest state, a Utah-size swath of tundra sweeping down from the Brooks Range to the shores of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. It is also one of the richest, both in wildlife and hydrocarbons. The sprawling oil fields surrounding Prudhoe Bay produce 16 percent of the United States’ domestic oil supply, along with a whopping 90 percent of Alaska’s state revenues. Some 15 million acres in the middle of the slope, including the lucrative oil fields, are owned by the state. Much of the rest, save for a few sizable parcels owned by the native Inupiat, belongs to you and me.
Most of our holdings are split between the scenic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the east, and the biggest single block of land in the federal estate, a 23-million-acre chunk of western Arctic known as the National Petroleum Reserve– Alaska, or NPRA. Though it sounds like a massive oil tank that the nation taps in times of need, in reality it contains the largest piece of unprotected wilderness in the nation, along with a half million caribou, hundreds of grizzlies, wolves, and in summer more waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds than anyone can count.
Biologists have argued for decades that areas of the petroleum reserve are more critical to wildlife than the actual wildlife refuge. But because it’s also believed to hide large deposits of oil, natural gas, and coal, federal and state biologists have been warned to hold their tongues. While the battle over drilling in the refuge raged in the U.S. Congress, the Bush Administration leased vast tracts of the petroleum reserve and offshore waters to the highest bidder, a process that could transform millions of acres of wilderness into oil and gas fields, and the Beaufort Sea into a frosty Gulf of Mexico. Some of those leases include critical habitat for the geese, caribou, and bowhead whales that have sustained the Inupiat for thousands of years. With substantial communal lands on the slope, the 5,000 Inupiat scattered among seven remote villages and the town of Barrow stand to become the newest oil barons of the 21st century. But in the process they may lose what makes them Inupiat. Many are none too happy about it.