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Post-expedition Interview
  Conducted by Michael Heasley


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MH: What led you to this story?

Arnold: Actually, I did part of this story years and years ago. It is an ongoing story, and I have seen bits and pieces of it on Capitol Hill, because it is a political story in some ways. But this was a chance to look at it from a different angle—the perspective of the people dependent on this caribou herd.

MH: Is that the story you set out to do? Did your expectations change anywhere down the line?

Arnold: You know, I wasn’t sure. The oil industry’s best hope for its next Prudhoe Bay-size field is—of all places—underneath this tiny piece of land which is the calving ground for an amazing herd of caribou. It is somewhat protected now as part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but that could change with the next administration. So these people have been fighting for years and years—with the help of the environmental community—for a more permanent protected status.

I knew that part of the story from covering the energy committee in the Senate. And I have been up to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but had never really spent time with the people—especially when the herd was passing through. This assignment was a chance to be in the community when the herd was passing through.

MH: What place are we talking about?

Arnold: We are talking about Old Crow, Canada, which is 70 miles [112 kilometers] north of the Arctic Circle. It is the northernmost settlement in the Yukon Territory. And it is a small village of about 300 people. You don’t sense there are that many, because people are scattered all over the place in hunting and fishing camps.

You fly for miles and miles and miles and see absolutely nothing, and then you come down and there are—a few cabins. It is a tiny community in the middle of nowhere, and you kind of wonder. “Why is this place here?” It is on a bend of the river right where the caribou have passed through for thousands of years.

MH: What river?

Arnold: The Porcupine River. The caribou are called the Porcupine caribou herd.

MH: Can you give us a general history of the people who settled there over the past century?

Arnold: Well, what I know about the Gwich’in and most of the people who live up there is that originally they were nomads who fished, trapped, and hunted. The Gwich’in followed the herd and also trapped muskrat. They eventually settled down along the Porcupine River.

MH: Has development affected their lives and their livelihood?

Arnold: It hasn’t yet, not this particular people. On the Alaska side of the border, there are some native communities that are dependent on oil. But Old Crow is about as far away from that as you can possibly get.

The industry has not affected the village at all. Yet there is this huge threat. The Gwich’in are a subsistence culture, largely dependent on hunting and fishing.

We were there in September, when it’s very cold, and the first snow starts to come. You can just feel it in the village; everybody is getting ready. They have got to get their wood, they have got to get their fish and they have got to get their meat. And that is the way these people have been for hundreds of years.

MH: Who is speaking on their behalf, or are they politically active?

Arnold: They have just become so. And the Canadian government is helping them. But these people, some of them who have never left the village, have organized. They are sending groups to come down and lobby the U.S. government for permanent protected status of the calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They have been very effective.

MH: What are the chances they will succeed?

Arnold: They have largely succeeded so far. The Bush Administration had a national energy strategy that relied on opening up the calving grounds. They successfully fought that—both the Gwich’in in Alaska and the Gwich’in in Canada, along with the environmental community.

The Clinton Administration has vowed not to allow oil exploration or drilling in that area, but they still haven’t put the land into permanent protected status.

I don’t think these people will ever be completely confident or secure; their whole being is dependent on this one herd. Some of these people can’t imagine what it would be like not to have caribou.

MH: Wouldn’t they move?

Arnold: They would probably move down to Whitehorse. But if you asked almost anyone in Old Crow, “What would life be like without the caribou?” they wouldn’t even want to contemplate the question. It is like saying to somebody “What would your life be like if you didn’t have water?” [Laughter.]

When you land in Old Crow and get off the plane, you can immediately smell smoked meat. When you walk into the little building that is the airport you will see people wearing parts of caribou. When you walk down the street—the dirt path—people are talking to each other about the caribou: Where are the caribou? Did you get your meat? Where is the herd? It is everywhere.

MH: Looking back on it in retrospect, what was an outstanding impression? What did you come away with that you didn’t know before?

Arnold: I knew all about the politics of this story. The caribou calving grounds are spectacular. It is an unbelievably beautiful place. It just stops you. So I knew about that. And I knew about these people who depended on the herd, and that the herd was a great argument for protecting this place.

But I didn’t have the sense of how rare it is these days to find a group of people who are dependent on a single animal. It just doesn’t exist anymore. To see that and really feel that was compelling.


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