White. No horizon. In the distance, sky and tundra fade together into a blue-white wash. The Arctic landscape has a great many shades of white: the crystalline white of blown snow. The gray-green white of ice on the sea. The silver white of a fox's fur. The turquoise white in the northern sky an hour before the sun comes up in the south to illuminate another short winter's day.
White. Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, standing on the floor of the Senate last month, holding up a blank sheet of white paper. That, he says, is all you can see in winter on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain--just "snow and ice." So what could be wrong with drilling for oil in such a bleak, deserted region in the distant northeastern corner of Alaska? There is nothing there.
White. Evon Peter, a Gwich'in Native American from the southern fringes of the wildlife refuge, stands atop a hill and looks out over the whiteness. He starts naming it: "Vatr' agwaahgwail"--the line of a caribou trail. "Vatthaih ik"--Snowy Owl Mountain. "Shih han"--Brown Bear River. Each part of the landscape has a name and a story, often related to the caribou the Gwich'in depend on for food. As he speaks, the whiteness comes alive. "When I stand here, I feel I am free," says Peter, a staunch opponent of oil drilling. "Here nature is the only law."
That may be about to change. With two former oilmen in the White House, a Republican Congress calling for greater access to public lands out West, and high energy prices worrying consumers, America's last true wilderness is under attack. The 50-year-old debate over whether to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR(pronounced An-war), is shaping up as the defining environmental battle of the Bush presidency. For months, George W. Bush has spoken in favor of drilling for oil in the refuge. As rolling brownouts swept California, he argued that Alaskan oil exploration would keep the crisis from spreading--even though oil-fired generators produce just 1% of California's electricity.
Bush's energy-policy task force, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, had its first full meeting on ANWR last Friday, and Bush and Cheney have made it clear that drilling there will top their list of recommendations. "I campaigned hard on the notion of having environmentally sensitive exploration at ANWR," Bush said last month, "and I think we can do so." Environmentalists counter that just as there is no way to be half-pregnant, there is no "sensitive" way to drill in a wilderness.