Barely 10 feet above the golden, hay-scented tundra, a yellow-billed loon streaks into view from the east. Ten pounds of flesh and feathers hurtles by at 60 knots, head low and headlong in loon flight, ivory-colored bill aglow in the Arctic sun. I can hear its rapid wing beats slice the morning air as it jets over a pair of loons I’ve been watching. In response, the larger of the two stretches its neck horizontally over the water and issues an urgent yodel, penetrating and surprisingly loud.
Defiant and defensive, this is the territorial call given by males declaring their home lake off-limits to other loons in order to protect their family and food resources—the whitefish, char, and blackfish that live beneath them. What may sound to the uninitiated like a mad, otherworldly screech is not. “The loon’s song is the voice of the earth,” an Inupiaq elder once told me. “They speak for this land.”
Daunted, perhaps, the intruder banks left, then disappears toward another lake. The scene strikes me as metaphorical: The loon’s attempt to safeguard resources is not the only such attempt here on the vast and fruitful coastal plain of Alaska’s western Arctic. Not by a long shot.
Mention Arctic wildlife and most people imagine an area on the eastern end of Alaska’s North Slope: the beleaguered Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But to the west of Prudhoe Bay there’s an additional 23 million acres of unsung wilderness: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. It’s even larger than the Arctic refuge, teeming with wildlife—and in need of your help.
Though the reserve’s name makes it sound like a giant oil tank waiting to be tapped, it holds much more. This western Arctic wilderness, the largest federal holding in the United States—the reserve is the size of Indiana—is home to hundreds of thousands of caribou; grizzlies and wolves in numbers long ago erased from the Lower 48; and skeins of pintails and long-tailed ducks, Pacific black brant, tundra swans, king eiders, and white-fronted geese lacing the spring and autumn skies. Now and then a surreptitious wolverine, too lanky and long-legged to be a bear, appears in the low rays of the midnight sun. From the river bluffs hundreds of falcons and eagles take wing. And on the reserve’s fringes, where it slips under the Beaufort Sea to the north and the Chukchi Sea to the west, it is refuge to seals and birthing belugas and the terrestrial domain of polar bears—icon of the North—swimming in from the retreating sea ice. A bleak and empty land suited only for oil development? No way.
Thirty-five years ago Congress mandated that “maximum protection” for the reserve’s fish, wildlife, and other natural “surface values” be balanced against any energy exploration and development. The reserve was even considered for national wildlife refuge status. The 1976 act further authorized the Interior Secretary to establish “special area” protections for regions of particular importance to wildlife, specifically Teshekpuk Lake and the Utukok Uplands (see map, page 87), for their rich waterfowl and caribou habitats. The Colville River and Kasegaluk Lagoon followed later for their own superlative and unique habitats.
But that “maximum protection” has never been realized. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations since Jimmy Carter, the reserve’s wildlife has enjoyed only a series of localized and temporary protections.
The Reagan years saw the NPR-A’s first oil lease sales. The George W. Bush administration sold the most; in 2004 alone Bush sold leases covering roughly 1.4 million acres and nearly blanketing the primary concentration of the reserve’s yellow-billed loon breeding grounds. Two years later Bush attempted to lease the most critical and irreplaceable habitat around Teshekpuk Lake—in fact, everything but the lake bed itself. Audubon Alaska and five other conservation groups sued to prevent the leases—and won. The effect of the court ruling was to return the environmental analysis back to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which announced in 2008 that it would defer leasing the most sensitive goose-molting wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake until 2018.
The business of selling oil leases took a hit recently when the U.S. Geological Survey reduced its estimate of how much crude could be pumped from the reserve by more than 90 percent—from 10.6 billion barrels to 896 million (500 million at current market prices). As a result, oil companies gave up many of their leases, including most of those beneath the yellow-bills’ primary breeding grounds.
Still, the tug-of-war between energy and environment is far from over. The USGS describes gas stores within the reserve as “phenomenal,” and Alaskan politicians are eager to open the valve. A recent headline in the Anchorage Daily News read, “Alaska must be aggressive on gas pipeline, [Alaskan Senator Mark] Begich says.”
Meanwhile, the hottest oil prospects remaining in the reserve appear to lie directly beneath the goose-molting area and caribou calving grounds next to Teshekpuk Lake. Although many leases have been relinquished, up to 28 exploratory wells will be sunk on Alaska’s North Slope before mid-2012. In fact, this past October began the busiest winter for drilling new wells since 1969.
There is good news, however. Even as the energy companies bore into the tundra, there could be a chance—unprecedented in the history of the reserve—to protect key wildlife areas from further drilling and establish conservation measures across the entire region. The BLM is currently working on a “comprehensive plan,” an evaluation of all the reserve’s resources that would give the BLM the opportunity to delineate zones for lease sales while protecting key habitats in special areas like Teshekpuk. The plan, to be shaped by public comment when the draft environmental-impact statement comes out early next year, may be the last hope for providing the mandated conservation balance in the reserve as terrific pressures mount to “drill, baby, drill” and as industrial infrastructure creeps west from Prudhoe Bay to the Colville River Delta, where ConocoPhillips is seeking permission to build a bridge, road, and pipeline into the reserve.
“The proposed road and bridge project would be the first permanent infrastructure for oil development within the NPR-A, and the manner in which this proceeds has important implications for future development,” says Eric Myers, Audubon Alaska’s policy director. “What’s most important is how and where any development takes place. And that the new BLM planning effort offers the opportunity to avoid the kind of industrial sprawl we see across the central Arctic from Prudhoe Bay.”
In my role as a field biologist studying loons, I’ve crammed boots, binoculars, layers of fleece and wool, and mosquito head nets into my old pack and made more than a dozen summer forays into the vast, lake-riddled grasslands that comprise the heart of Alaska’s western Arctic. I work with a team looking for ways to conserve the yellow-billed loon, one of the rarest birds nesting in the United States. Each year between 3,500 and 5,000 of these birds return to the reserve, where they have only a brief open-water season to nest and raise their young (some lakes never thaw entirely during the far north’s fleeting summers). The loons are already threatened by the pollution contaminating their wintering grounds in China’s Yellow Sea as well as by accidental drownings in gill nets. Industrial development now threatens to invade the breeding grounds of these retiring loons with construction noise and traffic; habitat loss to drilling pads, pipelines, and roads; changes in water flow and lake levels; and, of course, contaminating spills. Currently the development connected to Prudhoe Bay averages more than a spill per day. Most are small, but even small spills can oil loons and kill their eggs.
On the Fourth of July in 2002, a handful of USGS research biologists and I first set foot on the tundra to begin our yellow-bill studies. It was snowing. Some of their two-egg nests had already hatched. We banded and measured the loons we captured, and took blood and feather samples to test for poisons. We also fitted a few of the loons with satellite transmitters, which would eventually divulge their migration route—not to the Gulf of Alaska, as many scientists had presumed, but to Asian waters. Most years we returned, sometimes more than once, to continue our studies. This late June I was back, watching my quarry from a low hillside of cottongrass and purple-flowered moss campion by the Ikpikpuk River on the western edge of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, the first conservation battlefield in the reserve.
Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake north of the Brooks Range, is so big it creates its own weather—a layer of sea fog avoided by pilots. Hundreds of thousands of birds migrate here to nest each summer, returning from five continents and all the world’s oceans. Tundra swans, imitating the hoarse croaks of sandhill cranes, fly in from North Carolina. Greater white-fronted geese arrive from Texas, along with their delightful laughter. Buff-breasted sandpipers from Argentina appear in their diminishing numbers, the males immediately performing unabashed dances to attract mates. Bar-tailed godwits, with their long upswept bills and eponymous sideways striped tails, wade up to their belly feathers along the lake’s edges, a prelude to additional foraging in western Alaska. Once fully fattened, they will fly nonstop back to New Zealand over the broad Pacific, burning half their body weight on the way.
Up to 37,000 Pacific black brant—one-third of the world population—from across at least 10 different nesting colonies in Alaska, Canada, and Russia flock to the region every year to an array of lakes primarily north and east of Teshekpuk. Here they find nutritious sedges to fuel the production of new feathers and the coming autumn migration, ample area to escape predators while they’re flightless, and an undisturbed setting for both. Some 35,000 white-fronted geese plus thousands of Canada and snow geese raise the molting population some years to nearly 100,000. From our floatplane they appear as small flocks, racing in unison at the sound of the engine, eventually coalescing into throngs of thousands. Along the shorelines we kick through windrows of molted feathers, gathered up by the Arctic wind. “These wetlands are internationally recognized as the most important goose-molting habitat in the circumpolar north,” says Eric Taylor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s waterfowl management branch chief in Alaska. But it wasn’t birds alone that caught the attention of Congress in 1976.
The most prominent signs of mammalian life are the caribou trails that cross the tundra and the small, pearly white antlers dropped by the cows after they give birth in mid-June. The Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd has traditionally birthed its young northeast, east, and southeast of the lake. The slowly growing herd—68,000 strong when last counted, in 2009—migrates around the big lake from calving areas to insect-relief areas (windier locations near sea or lake or on ridges, where mosquitoes and bot flies cannot swarm). The herd passes through two narrow corridors between Teshekpuk and the Beaufort Sea—a route that industrial intrusion could obstruct. Each year, when the herd disperses through autumn and winter, it supplies roughly 5,000 animals to feed subsistence families from Nuiqsut to the Chukchi Sea.
From Teshekpuk Lake on the flat northern coastal plain south to the Brooks Range foothills, where the Utukok, Kokolik, and Colville rivers arise, the topography builds dramatically into a panorama of green rolling prairie. The cottongrass tussocks grow larger as well. Attached to the ground by narrow pedestals, they are impossible to walk on and tiresome to step between. Better to hike the stony ridges or a caribou trail. There are plenty of the latter. Here in the Utukok Uplands, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd—the largest in Alaska—calves each June. I came to see them in July 2003, when the caribou were just beginning their journey toward their wintering grounds, south of the Brooks. The herd’s population was at its cyclical peak, some 490,000, migrating across an area the size of Montana. Grizzlies and wolves would come to test the mettle of mother caribou with new calves and to prey upon the old and lame. Behind them, cleaning up the carcasses, would drift the ghostlike wolverines, rarely seen but as populous here as anywhere on earth.
When the herd had passed, I climbed a ridge and tried to comprehend this huge and quiet wilderness. I remember standing there, surrounded by beautiful pastoral grasslands as far as I could see, east and west. Not a road or building or other human in sight. My only company was the sough of the wind and the high-pitched growls from a long-tailed jaeger. I felt as though I’d been dropped off in the late Pleistocene on a Dakotan prairie.
In the Utukok Uplands, the drainages of four rivers have carved out bluffs where Arctic peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, golden eagles, and rough-legged hawks hide their nests. Along the riverbanks you might find the remnants of past towns, hunting blinds, the occasional whalebone sled runner, and chert points knapped out by hunters from a few hundred to 13,000 years ago.
Drop down the Utukok, floating its rapids beneath the wings of eagles and falcons, to its mouth, and you drift into Kasegaluk Lagoon, a large expanse of shallow waters separated from the Chukchi Sea by 125 miles of sand and cobble barrier islands that, come summer, are as picturesque as Caribbean strands, though a bit cooler. As many as half of the world’s Pacific black brant come wheeling in here in late August or early September, filling the sky with their wavy, overlapping vees. Drawn to rich fields of estuarine green algae, they refuel for their flight to the eelgrass beds of Izembek Lagoon en route to wintering grounds in Baja Mexico. Long-tailed ducks, with their elaborate chocolate parfait plumage, are regulars here, and spectacled eiders, with their goggle-like facial markings, nest on the mainland. Pacific loons, elegant in their gray velvet hoods, seek out inland lakes, while their smaller cousins, the red-throats, nest on tiny ponds and fish in the lagoon. Thousands of ink-bellied dunlins and red phalaropes (a shorebird species in which the female is the more brightly colored and the male incubates the eggs) add to the greatest variety of feathered species in all of Alaska’s lagoons.
Up to a thousand ice-loving and potentially threatened spotted seals (fodder for polar bears) gather on the barrier islands on summer days, barking at times like a kennel of dogs. More and more walruses haul out here as well, as the Arctic warms and their preferred sea ice retreats northward. Beluga whales arrive in small groups to form their greatest congregations along the Chukchi coast. They molt here in the shallows, where the gravel provides a place for them to roll and dance to rub off their old skin. Some take advantage of the protected waters to give birth. Abundant fish and shrimp feed the seals and whales, which, along with the walruses, provide subsistence food for the local Inupiat. Threatened polar bears stalk these strands; more and more often the pregnant females den here come winter, rather than swimming out to the retreating sea ice. And a handful of grizzlies mosey down the long river corridors from the foothills to gorge on the carcasses of marine mammals washed up by the sea.
Back in those uplands, a short walk east from the Utukok headwaters, you come to Storm Creek, the westernmost tributary of the Colville River. The Colville flows east from there and then north, meandering some 300 sinuous miles so scenic they earned the river (along with the Utukok) a nomination for Wild and Scenic Rivers status. From source to sea delta, it remains largely unmarred by man. World-record numbers of raptors flock to the top of its bluffs, inlaid with 100-million-year-old fossils, to hatch and raise their young. Hundreds of pairs of rough-legs and dozens of pairs of gyrfalcons nest along the Colville and its tributaries.
You could drift down that splendid river for days, weeks, through the uplands beneath the tilting of eagles and the riverside bluffs, camping on the sandy beaches, exploring the dry and wet tundra plains, moving northward into the lakes where Steller’s and spectacled eiders (both threatened species) and loons share their secrets. A few Arctic pilgrims have made this journey. Not many.
On the broad Colville River Delta, whose westernmost slice lies within the reserve, great congregations of brant and white-fronted geese and a well-studied scattering of yellow-billed loons raise their young. It is here on this delta that ConocoPhillips wishes to build a road, bridge, and oil pipeline across the Nigliq Channel—the eastern boundary of the reserve—to a new project known as CD-5 (Colville Delta Number 5). By entering the reserve with a road directly on the path toward those critical habitats around Teshekpuk Lake, the project would contradict a provision that was intended to avoid the needless construction of roads in the Colville River Delta. As much as a single road—much less a bridge and oil pipeline—would set the stage for more permanent roads and the industrial sprawl everyone promised to avoid. Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit first time around—rare for the Corps in these parts—though it’s reconsidering.
If permitted, that road could precede the BLM’s new plan, but hope remains for long-lasting conservation. When the BLM announced its planning process in July 2010, Audubon Alaska and four other conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, seized the opportunity to make recommendations for permanent protection strategies in both the four existing special areas and four proposed new special areas.
The proposed special areas would basically expand and complete the original designated areas. The Dease Inlet and Meade River Special Area, for example, would enlarge the Teshekpuk Lake area westward to include the full heart of yellow-billed loon nesting habitat and more of the spectacular matrix of lakes and ponds and tundra that fills every summer with waterfowl and shorebirds. Reaches along the coast would help protect polar bears and ringed and spotted seals. The southern Ikpikpuk River’s bank-nesting peregrines and rough-legs would be covered, as would the Western Arctic Caribou Herd’s migration routes through the upper foothills and into the mountains.
This is not an effort to lock up the reserve against development, say conservationists. Neither is it an attempt to prevent the region’s oil from being drilled. Much of the reserve would remain open for drilling, including many tracts within special areas where it might occur under certain conditions or restrictions (including directional drilling to reservoirs beneath critical habitat). “Within an area the size of Indiana, it’s entirely appropriate that there be key places protected and set aside for wildlife,” says Nils Warnock, Audubon Alaska’s executive director, “and the protection of wildlife and special areas was one of Congress’s stated goals.”
Pressured by Americans’ agitation over gasoline prices and a push for greater domestic oil production, President Obama announced in May that he was directing the Interior Department to conduct annual lease sales in the reserve “while respecting sensitive areas.” A sale is scheduled for this December. He is “opening up the reserve,” some critics charged. (To the contrary, the reserve has been “open” for oil leasing to private companies since 1981. Nearly 6.5 million acres have been leased, though many of those leases have now been relinquished or have expired.)
While previous administrations collectively had attempted to offer leasing on all of the critical habitats around Teshekpuk, Obama extended protections during an August 2010 lease sale when he withheld tracts surrounding Teshekpuk Lake “because of migratory bird and caribou habitat concerns”—a conservation gain unparalleled to date. Whether Obama does so again will be determined this month when a map of the areas that will be open for leasing in December is made available.
At this writing, Americans still do not know whether the Interior Department will continue respecting sensitive areas and keep the land around Teshekpuk Lake off-limits to future leasing. Will the BLM’s draft comprehensive plan offer sufficient protections within the special areas? Will it respect and integrate the newly proposed areas? The plan, expected in early 2012, will demonstrate this administration’s regard for the conservation integrity of the reserve; input during the public comment period that follows will reflect the American people’s.
“It would be tragic beyond imagination that this nation could trade the irreplaceable wildlife habitats in the reserve for what would amount to less than one month’s worth of oil,” Warnock says.
Even drilling every bit of oil possible in the reserve would not affect the price at the pump, drilling critics contend. The volume is insignificant, the oil would not reach refineries for years to come, and new evidence from Washington suggests that it is oil speculators and not supply volume that have caused gasoline prices to skyrocket.
The cost of gasoline and the political issues of oil leasing and conservation strategies mean nothing to the wild geese, the innocent caribou, or the rare yellow-billed loon. The politics seem far off even to me, here in the gathering golden light of an Arctic morning. In this primeval setting, it is the loon’s song that will celebrate and defend its territory. But in a larger way, both the celebration and defense—in this case, stewardship—of 23 million acres of one of our nation’s only Arctic ecosystems will depend upon the voices of humans, who also speak for this wild earth.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Show your concern about drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska’s special areas by filling out and mailing the card that's bound between pages 84 and 85. Tell the BLM to provide permanent protection for areas within the NPR-A, including Teshekpuk Lake, the Utukok Uplands, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and the Colville River. You can stay up to date on the issue here. Express your concern for the Teshekpuk Lake Wetlands by sending a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar here.