ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- This place is a Zen thing. The only way to tell you've wandered in is the absence of anything saying so.
No signs. No road to get here. No advice from government stewards about what to seek out or what to avoid. No entrance fees and no officially licensed T-shirt.
This isn't just wilderness, contend those who want to keep it pristine, but a sanctuary for wildness.
It is also oil country. With just the last half of the last year of the petroleum-friendly Bush administration remaining, the window for opening the land to drilling is about to close. Yet $4 gasoline and a drain-circling economy have made Americans suddenly friendlier to the idea of pumping from the Arctic wilderness.
Republican congressional candidates recently staged a fact-finding trip to Alaska to showcase the possibility of an untapped domestic oil bounty. President Bush is pushing again for exploration in ANWR. The oil industry continues to point to expansion on Alaska's North Slope as a way to decrease dependence on imported energy.
Those calling for drilling say oil development would barely touch ANWR, disturbing just 2,000 acres of a 19.2 million-acre outback. And exploration would not tromp on the spectacular Brooks Range mountains or their scenic foothills. Rather, it would be limited to the pancake-flat coastal plain along the Arctic Ocean.
While their argument has not triumphed during decades of appeals -- the refuge has become ground zero in the ongoing fight between environmentalists and the oil industry -- they sense a shift.
"Public outrage over energy prices before an election can be a powerful thing," said Roger Herrera, a spokesman for the pro-drilling group Arctic Power. "It can move some politicians."
Defenders of the refuge -- they object to the common ANWR acronym as a denuding device -- concede that the coastal plain might not be as photogenic as other parts of Alaska. Still, they say, it is a critical part of the larger ecosystem.
Mosquitoes send large mammals down to the breezes of the coast for relief. Predators such as grizzly bears and wolf packs follow the caribou. Shore birds rely on the coastline for nesting. Musk oxen, foxes and weasels wander from mountain valleys to coastal flatlands.
"Not all habitats are created equal," said Eleanor Huffines, the Alaska director of the Wilderness Society. "You need all kinds (and) the rest of the coast is being leased and being drilled."
A change would open more than 100 miles of Alaska coastline to drilling, meaning leases on most of the state's northern shore. Efforts to tap into the oil potential of the land go back before it was established as a refuge. The debate has not stopped since.
On Dec. 6, 1960, the U.S. Interior Department set aside most of the land by administrative caveat "for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wildness and recreational values" after a congressional effort to establish the refuge failed. Twenty years later in 1980, Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska Lands Act into law, expanding the refuge and meaning it would take an act of Congress to open the land to drilling.
In the last 15 years, the U.S. House has passed bills 10 times that would have opened ANWR to drilling. The Senate went along in 1995, but Bill Clinton vetoed the measure.
Through the Bush years, the Senate has been the chief obstacle for drilling. Even when proposals to tap the refuge for oil had a majority of votes in the upper chamber, there have not been the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Drilling advocates still appear to lack the supermajority that could win in the Senate.
The result has been largely in line with how Americans have felt.
At the start of this decade, more than two-thirds of Americans routinely told pollsters the environment should win priority over the economy. Now, even after Al Gore shared a Nobel Prize for his telling of "An Inconvenient Truth," just half rank green over greenbacks.
A Gallup Poll in May found that 57 percent of Americans favor "drilling in U.S. coastal and wilderness areas," although it didn't specifically ask about ANWR. (Alaskans, who see an immediate payoff to their economy from drilling in taxes and jobs, overwhelmingly support tapping into the refuge.)
Polls by the Pew Center found sizable national shifts on the specific issue of Arctic refuge drilling just this year. In February, when gasoline prices averaged less than $3 a gallon, just 42 percent favored ANWR drilling. Four months and $1 a gallon later, a full 50 percent were ready to suck oil from the refuge. And growing support could be found among all age groups, political affiliations and education levels, even among self-described liberals.
"You've got a public that's much more concerned about gas prices and the financial bottom line," said Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
That has given drilling advocates hope for a similar shift on Capitol Hill.
CHANGE OF HEART
Consider the changed attitude of Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican with a reputation for supporting environmental causes. This spring he reversed himself and now supports opening ANWR to oil development.
"I have resisted drilling in ANWR because I believe that these oil reserves are like money in the bank that is yielding huge interest rates," the Maryland congressman said in a news release. "With oil at $134 per barrel, there is obviously no surplus energy or capital to invest in alternatives." He conceded some harm to the coastal strip of northern Alaska, but said, "I am convinced that the environmental impact will be minimal."
A bill moving through the U.S. House would again try to open the refuge to drilling and direct money generated by the leases to fund alternative energy projects.
"It's still a long road," said Steve Hansen, a GOP spokesman on the House Natural Resources Committee, where Rep. Don Young of Alaska has long pushed for drilling. "But right now the chances for opening ANWR for drilling are better than they have been for years."
GAS PRICES COULD DIP
Would more drilling in Alaska, in the end, move prices at the pump? Barely, suggest experts.
Still, geologists believe much could be sucked from the new petroleum frontier. Oil worth at least $1 trillion likely sits below the refuge. It could add 27 million gallons of gasoline and diesel to the daily U.S. supply, or an increase of 20 percent of domestic production. Over the estimated 30-year life of the oil field, drilling could deliver 5 billion to 20 billion barrels of oil.
Yet if drilling were OK'd today, the government estimates it still might take 10 years before oil began to flow. And at its peak, the coastal oil field might pump just 1 million of the 87 million barrels of oil harvested daily worldwide.
Energy Information Administration estimates suggest that ANWR drilling could cut U.S. imports to about two-thirds of its oil -- rather than 70 percent -- and that gas prices might drop a penny or two a gallon. Even that change could be wiped out if Saudi Arabia alone curtailed its production slightly to account for a global increase in production.
Barack Obama, like most prominent Democratic politicians, is strictly opposed to the drilling. John McCain, in Kansas City, even objected to the ANWR acronym, saying that "if we found oil in the Grand Canyon, I wouldn't be in favor of drilling there. This is a refuge."
Yet oil is critical to the U.S. economy. Herrera, of the pro-drilling Arctic Power group, said the country's real need for energy must be balanced against what he sees as a slight impact on the environment.
"You can go farther west on the northern slope of Alaska and find a giant caribou herd that is untouched," he said. "Things go up and down anyway without the impact of man."
Defenders of the refuge say its pristine nature would be fouled by oil exploration even if the ecological disturbance were minor.
Roger Kaye helps manage ANWR for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is the author of "Last Great Wilderness." Even if caribou numbers don't decline -- they actually rose around Prudhoe Bay after that huge oil field was developed in the 1970s -- the herds might become more tame and accustomed to humans.
In researching the establishment of the refuge, Kaye came to believe that it represents something quintessentially American.
"This was meant to be an adventuring ground," he said. "It's a place for looking at how the world was before man changed it."