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Outdoors/Adventure

Schandelmeier: When you drill for oil in the wilderness, it’s never wild again

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 30, 2017
  • Published December 30, 2017

The site of the only oil well, completed in the mid-1980s, drilled on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The polygonal patterns in the undisturbed tundra are signs of ice wedges, which in the disturbed area have melted, leading to the pooled water. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services via The New York Times)

I spend most of my days outdoors. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., I am rarely in the house. The summer finds me on the water or in the tundra. Winter days are spent in the snow, doing something.

Though my days are spent in places that most folks rarely visit, I am rarely in a location that is truly wild.

Wild places in today's world are rare. In the early 1970s, a trapping partner and I spent a winter 20 or 30 miles north of the Yukon River on Charley Creek. Frank Warren, the owner of Circle City Lodge at that time, dropped us off on Halloween. We built a four-day cabin and proceeded to trap on snowshoes for the next four months. We had an AM radio for entertainment. There were no communications, in or out. Four months passed without hearing other people, or their toys. Military jets went through the area several times, but that was it.

That may seem wild to the uninitiated, but on several overnight forays that my dog and myself made into the upper drainages, I found the remains of old cabins. Trappers from the past had been there years ahead of me. Remote? Yes. Wild? No.

When we speak of wilderness, what is the true definition? Webster's Dictionary tells me it is an "area essentially undisturbed by human activity." That means my backyard qualifies as "wilderness."

The reality is our home is barely rural. Wilderness should be a place where you can walk and feel like you are the first to leave your footprint. Those undisturbed places are almost nonexistent in today's environment.

There are a couple of good-sized places in left in Alaska that may qualify. One is the tract of land that lies north of the Wood-Tikchik Lake system. There are trackless miles between those lakes and Aniak, on the Kuskokwim River. People have been through the area for thousands of years, but have left little trace. I took a 20-day walk in the area in the early 80's. I saw no signs that people had ever been there.

ANWR is the other spot. The recently passed congressional tax plan will change that.

I will grant you this — the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has its share of adventure tourists these days. However, as is the case in much of Alaska, if you avoid the river systems and travel outside of hunting seasons, you will be alone. Adventure tourists leave few traces. They pass through and it is mostly as if they were never there.

Proponents of ANWR drilling have said they believe drilling can co-exist with wilderness. It cannot. In an ideal drilling environment there are zero spills and tiny gravel pads. Oil rigs and gravel roads are not part of wilderness. The flat coastal plain has miles of visibility. You can see an oil platform 40 miles away.

You might make a case that oil can live side-by-side with the Porcupine caribou herd's calving grounds. The Gwich'in think not. They have lived with the caribou far longer than you or I can imagine. I believe them.

Richard Glenn, vice president of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, says it doesn't matter. He wants a sewer. Some of us may feel that "wild" is more important than a sewage lagoon. I have lived with an outhouse by choice for more than 40 of my years.

The question is not the oil potential of ANWR, but rather who is it important to? The United States used 7.2 billion barrels of oil in 2016. Seven percent of that total was bio-fuel. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there could be 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil under the Arctic plain. That is nearly a two-year supply of oil for our country. When it is gone do we keep looking for more, or is our country better served looking at renewables? Should we spend more money and time on less-intrusive energy sources such as fuel cells?

Oil production is important for oil companies. They make a ton of money from oil. BP has spent more than 60 billion dollars thus far cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico spill. They are still in business. The state of Alaska would be broke 50 times over.

Yes, there will be jobs for a few years. However, 35 percent of Alaska's oil-field workers are nonresidents. Do we wish to lose the wild for that?

Wild places are irreplaceable. If you are someone who believes effective reclamation can take place; take a look at the Valdez Creek gold mine site. The company that reclaimed it won acclamation and awards for its great job.

Before you accept that, take a look at the satellite images for the Denali Highway along the Upper Susitna River. Compare the Valdez Creek site to the country surrounding it, then tell me again you can replace "wild."

John Schandelmeier is a life-long Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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