I would like to say a huge thank you to the Chase Coggins Fellowship for funding this trip. I learned so much more about the nuances of conservation and it opened up so many questions that I am excited to continue exploring in my time at Yale and beyond. Particularly I am so much more curious about how we decide stakeholdership, how our personal contexts define our relationship to the natural world, and why “environmentalism” as a movement has failed to garner widespread support from local communities. The Arctic Refuge is just one good case study for these, and I am so grateful that I was able to visit and explore. Plus, I met a lot of really interesting people through my interviews, including some that I have stayed in close contact with.
The Many Lives of ANWR
Hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle, I sat in a rusted-out pick-up truck with my guide Don Burns as he scanned the horizon with a pair of binoculars. He was searching for a herd of female caribou that had crossed over from the mainland the previous night. Barter Island is small—only four miles in any direction—and sits on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, inside the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is connected to the mainland by only a patchy sand spit that traces a jagged arc back toward the horizon. The herd would have crossed here, no doubt trying to escape the dense swarms of mosquitoes that emerge from the thawing tundra each summer. Don parked atop a ridge overlooking the beach and rested his scrawny arms on the dashboard to quell the slight tremor in his hands—the damn Alzheimer’s, he called it. He leaned into the windshield, peering out across the barren tundra for any hint of movement, any dark spot on the horizon that might divulge the location of the herd.
The tundra was bathed in the long tendrils of summer sun, and any caribou would have cast spindly shadows across the surface. Don scanned the expanse of open prairie, meticulously inspecting every ridge and dimple in the earth. Eventually, he froze and turned to me with a crooked smile. “Holy cannoli! There they are, jumpin’ every which way. Must be them damn mosquitoes eatin’ em’ up!” he said as he handed me the binoculars and pointed out past the rounded hills to the edge of the water across the island. I cranked down my window and peered out. Only the faintest hints of movement were visible. It was hard to discern the form of the herd against the dark blue of the water behind them, but they were there. They had gathered with their heads facing into the crisp sea breeze, relishing in the relief it provided from the torment of super-sized Arctic mosquitoes. Their shadows were painted across the tundra in a jumble of sprawling legs and stocky bodies, distorted by the mirage of thermals rising from the earth. I watched for a while as they grazed. Every few minutes, a lone doe would thrash about, throwing off her coat of petulant bugs before sauntering back toward the group with an exasperated shake of her head.
These caribou were members of the Porcupine Herd, a group of more than 210,000 animals that live within the Arctic Refuge and calve along the coastal plain. The herd is a critical food source for residents of Kaktovik, a village on the northern shores of Barter Island, who obtain up to 80 percent of their annual food supply from subsistence hunting. Kaktovik is home to no more than 300 people—mostly Inupiat natives, but with a smattering of military personnel and odd-ball vagabonds, like Don. It is the only permanent settlement inside the section of the coastal plain that was opened to oil drilling in December of 2017 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—the 10-02 Area. Oil drilling within the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has long been a contentious issue. The Refuge was formally created by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, which set aside 17.5 million acres as designated wilderness area, but reserved 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain to future oil and gas exploration. In the following decades, a rigorous partisan debate unfolded as representatives grappled with the trade-offs inherent in conservation.
The Arctic Refuge is the largest protected wilderness area in the United States and is home to an incredible array of charismatic wildlife. Wolves, musk oxen, Arctic foxes, and thousands of migrating birds all reside on the fertile coastal plain. When I visited Kaktovik last summer, Don and I spent hours each day driving the length of the island in search of animals—caribou, tundra swans, snowy owls, and if we were lucky, even polar bears. We would drive down one of the two gravel roads that led out from town, tires spitting up a plume of dust. One day, we happened upon a jaeger lilting on the breeze. He was immediately identifiable by his angled, sable wings and soft white underbelly. As we watched, he folded like an origami crane and plummeted toward the tundra to seize an unsuspecting lemming. Seemingly satisfied, the jaeger plucked at the lifeless form, tossing it into the air and catching it again in his beak until he had slashed a small hole in its abdomen and a string of satin innards oozed out. As the jaeger was pulling at this tangle of intestines, a large gull swooped in and grabbed the lemming from beneath him, leaving the jaeger undoubtedly perplexed. This prompted a hearty chuckle from Don, who quipped something about “those rat bastards.”
Don is an older man with weathered skin and sunken eyes, but with each guffawing laugh, he reveals hints of a mischievous youth. His dark hair is flecked with streaks of white and his gaunt face is blanketed with a patchy, overgrown beard. He wears the same tattered sweatpants and checkered red-and-brown flannel every day, though they droop from his small frame in solemn defeat. When I first spoke with Don on the phone, he radiated personality. What was supposed to be a quick conversation about my upcoming visit evolved into an hour-long conversation about his family and hobbies. I was planning to visit Kaktovik to learn more about local perspectives on the oil drilling edict and to see some of the wildlife that was likely to be threatened. When I casually asked Don about the caribou, he promised me, “yeah yeah, don’t you worry, you can shoot ‘em with your cameras a’fore we shoot ‘em with our guns.” It was an unsettling prospect, given that I had never so much as killed a mouse before, but he was welcoming and reassuring. Don was originally born in South Carolina, but traveled across the American West until he arrived the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay during the 1980s. There, he met his wife, Nora Jane Kaveolook, who was living in the neighboring city of Barrow. In 1988, they moved 100 miles east to the village of Kaktovik, where Nora Jane was born. They purchased a plot of land in the first and only land sale on the island, and Don built a home from a jig-saw amalgamation of wood planks and raw drywall.
From Don’s house, the whole village is on display. Kaktovik is small, no more than a mile in any given direction. There are no roads, only gravel strips, and all of the homes are built on pedestals. This far above the Arctic Circle, the ground is a patchwork of continuous permafrost, and the seasonal freezing and thawing cycle creates a dynamic topography rife with sinkholes. To combat this, each house is built on adjustable pillars that can be shifted independently to keep the house level. In every yard, scruffy dogs hunker down against the cold breeze, chained up between towers of junk. Rusted trucks, worn tires, and sun-bleached whale bones are piled up in every spare inch of space. On Barter Island, hardly anything is thrown away. All new shipments arrive by barge or plane, which is an expensive endeavor, so the community ethos places a high price on reusing what is already there.
When I visited Kaktovik, Don and I would drive through town every morning, stopping to say hi to everyone we passed. I suppose there are no strangers in a town that small. I asked Don once if he had ever had any problems with other residents in the village. He gave a characteristic chortle and exclaimed, “Honey, I’ been in more bar fights than most people ‘a been in bars!” I took that to mean yes. Don had a gruff way about him, a sort of tell-it-how-it-is mentality that I could imagine got him into trouble sometimes, but he was a warm presence in the community. Don goes out of his way to help the ‘aunties’ and other elders in the village. On one of our daily drives, we were flagged down by a couple of young boys looking for a ride. To this, Don informed me that he practices an open-door policy for all the kids in town because “well you jus’ never can know what’s goin’ on at home.”
During my week-long visit to Kaktovik, I stayed at the only hotel on the island, the Marsh Creek Inn. The Marsh Creek has twelve rooms, mostly to accommodate tourists during the whaling season, but when I visited in late July, only 3 were occupied. I flew into Kaktovik on a 9-seater plane, and disembarked at the end of a gravel strip under a large green sign that read “KAKTOVIK REGIONAL AIRPORT” in bold white letters. Only, there was no airport, just sand. I unloaded my bags from the cargo hull of the plane and boarded a school bus that drove me and a shipment of Costco-brand frozen food to the Inn. When I arrived, I was greeted by the manager, Tim, who handed me a key ring and told me not to lose it, because he only had the one. Tim was short, 5’ 7″ at the most. He wore black shorts and a red t-shirt with his high school nickname emblazoned across the back, “Kamikaze.” Tim walked with a perpetual bounce, like he was the star in his very own early-2000s music video. And he always had a joint in his hand.
Inside the Marsh Creek, there was a living room and a cafeteria. The living room was dark, lit only by a single overhead light. There was a worn-in leather couch and two grey Barcaloungers perched in front of a high definition television that was as likely to be playing National Geographic as Fox News. During my visit, I spent hours in this living room playing cards. The summer days were endless and life was slow in Kaktovik, so on days when Don was busy, I spent a lot of time by myself. Early in my trip, I would wander the island in my downtime, becoming acquainted with the layout of the village and exploring the beach; but Kaktovik is small, so I quickly resigned myself to filling the extra hours of daylight with boredom.
On one of my first mornings in Kaktovik, I stood on the pebbled shore watching a dense grey fog roll in off of the sea ice. The mist shrouded the village in a churning haze. Each drop of vapor was settled precariously on the brink of freezing—half snow, half water. The town was quiet except for a few kids who ran along the beach casting their fishnets into the sea and the lone red truck, the Polar Bear Patrol, which drove languid circles around the island. I wandered up to Don’s fish camp, a grey shed that contained only two damp cots, a propane torch, and some bear spray, and I clambered onto the roof. From here, I had hoped to catch a glimpse of polar bears or seals out on the towering ice sheet, but the fog blurred the line of the horizon into a dull shadow, and nothing was visible. Instead, I crawled down and walked along the beach toward a one-room plywood shack that sat a few feet above the high tide mark. It was leaden-blue with a red corrugated roof and tin awning. Several picnic tables were scattered around and the floor was cluttered with frayed ropes, scummy buoys, and dozens of Little Tikes toys. When I visited in late July, the shed was empty and quiet, but during the whaling season, it is the epicenter of life in the village—a convergence of captains and cooks and kids.
The U.S. Whaling Convention Act permits the native community in Kaktovik to take three bowhead whales each year to preserve subsistence and cultural traditions. The hunt usually takes place in early September, once the weather becomes cool enough to preserve the meat. Then, the whaling captains set out in small skiffs, weaving silently through the broken ice sheet in search of dark shadows beneath the waves. When a whale is spotted breaking the surface, the captains paddle closer. As a skiff pulls beside the whale, the harpooner stands on the forward bow and thrusts the harpoon into a patch of soft flesh around the blowhole. Modern harpoons are embedded with a small explosive that detonates within the whale, killing it instantly. Once a whale is landed, it is pulled to shore in front of the shack where residents gather to butcher it, piercing the thick black maktak and carving out a square grid of rosy flesh. Traditionally, shares of the whale are divided between the captain and the crew with certain parts, like the flipper, reserved for the harpooner. The remaining portions are distributed to the other residents in town and served at a feast.
After a whale is processed, the scraps are heaped onto a bone pile at the eastern edge of the island. Each fall, this pile attracts as many as eighty polar bears who swim to shore from the ice sheet to feast on the fresh scraps. This massive concentration of polar bears attracts a rising number of eco-tourists. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of visitors to Kaktovik increased from fewer than 50 to almost 2,000. A few businesses have emerged to accommodate the new tourism sector, including a small bed and breakfast and Don’s own wildlife viewing company, Arctic Chalet Tours. The burgeoning eco-tourism industry has generated a significant income for the village, which charges a whopping 12.5% tax on each bed at the bed and breakfast. Still, not all of the residents appreciate the new influx of visitors. Many of the social and spiritual dimensions of Inupiat society are deeply intertwined with the annual whale harvest, and some residents in Kaktovik resent the intrusion of outside tourists on the intimate tradition.
Just as the community learns to adapt to the increasing tourism trade, a larger threat looms on the horizon: seismic surveying of Area 10-02 begins in December 2018, another key step toward oil extraction on the coastal plain. Many community leaders have spoken out against the decision, citing the potential threats to subsistence resources and traditional practices, including the annual whale hunt. In an op-ed published in the Anchorage Daily News, longtime resident Robert Thompson wrote, “oil exploration and development would impact my hunting and fishing, and that of other residents of Kaktovik. Hunting is a large part of our… culture, and to take an action that will adversely affect this can be seen as cultural genocide.” Bowhead whales are sensitive to noise pollution, and there is concern that infrastructure from oil drilling may disrupt traditional migration routes and push whales miles offshore, past the reaches of the small whaling skiffs. This infrastructure might also damage the slow-to-regenerate tundra, which still bears the checkerboard scars from thumper trucks that were used to survey the coastal plain in the early 1950s.
For many villagers, though, the most ominous threat is the possibility of an oil spill. This far above the Arctic Circle, dense sea ice and months of darkness would likely render clean-up efforts ineffective or impossible. The sustained pollution would have staggering impacts on the wildlife communities in the Refuge and Beaufort Sea, which would be a devastating loss for subsistence hunters, like the Inupiat, who depend on these populations for survival. Although some proponents of oil drilling in the Refuge argue that an oil spill is unlikely, one need only look 100 miles west of Kaktovik to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the Trans-Atlantic pipeline, which have resulted in an average of 504 spills each year since 1996.
Oil and gas development also threatens traditional Inupiat culture. More young adults are leaving Kaktovik to attend college in bigger cities, including all three of Don’s daughters, but as children leave, traditions such as whaling and the native language, Iñupiaq, are lost. The village of Nuiqsut, which is adjacent to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, was one of the first villages to be transformed by oil and gas development. The Dalton Highway, which runs from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks, increased access to health care and education in the village, but it also brought heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and alcohol. In the years that followed, Nuiqsut saw an increase in suicide rates and addiction. Today, it serves as a cautionary tale for other villages in Alaska. Before moving to Kaktovik in 1988, Don worked at the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay, where he bore witness to the dramatic changes that occurred in Nuiqsut. To him, the prospect of such changes in Kaktovik is cause for considerable unease. Already, there have been several instances of suicide in Kaktovik. “Those boys jus’ get hooked on the booze and don’t think ‘bout what it’s gonna do to they mamas,” he said as he recounted the story of a young boy who recently hung himself in the fire station.
Still, not all the villagers are opposed to oil drilling. Because Kaktovik is so isolated, residents face many challenges. Only one airline—Ravn Air—serves Barter Island, so tickets are expensive and limited, and food and other necessities are disproportionately expensive. At the local grocery store, the Kikiktak Grocery, a gallon of milk costs $8.99, and one of Tim’s famous egg and cheese sandwiches at the Marsh Creek costs $13.50. Moreover, unpredictable weather conditions and months of continuous darkness mean that flights are regularly delayed for up to two weeks. This often makes emergency medical care inaccessible. Earlier this year, for example, a community elder died because the battery on his pacemaker ran out before he could be flown to a hospital in Fairbanks. And to avoid complications, pregnant women are flown out of Kaktovik six weeks before they are due to give birth. Because of these challenges, some residents in Kaktovik support oil and gas development for the promise of new jobs, increased connection to the outside world, and other modern amenities.
Oil drilling along the coastal plain will also undoubtedly generate revenue from dividends and private land sales. Land ownership on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is spread across many jurisdictions: private citizens, the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC), Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC), the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. This patchwork of ownership means any companies that choose to lease land for oil and gas development will have to purchase surface use rights from local residents and native corporations. Already, the ASRC has generated $1.3 billion from land leases in other oil fields across the North Slope, and their shareholders receive an average of $10,000 in dividends each year. The prospect of similar dividends from the Arctic Refuge is enticing for many villagers.
Because there are both tangible benefits and critical consequences to oil drilling in the Refuge, most residents are not necessarily opposed to oil drilling, but rather want to see certain conditions or restrictions imposed, such as no offshore drilling during the whale migration or along key hunting corridors within the Refuge. As Dr. Aron Crowell, the director of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum, notes: “rural native villages… are modern permanent settlements. As such, they have to balance the challenges of modern economic decisions and traditional cultural practices.”
Early in the week, while Don and I were searching the island for the caribou herd, he told me that Kaktovik is one of the only places left on Alaska’s North Slope where one can look out in any direction and see nothing but sky. Beginning at the Refuge boundary, just 60 miles to the west, the coast is dotted with oil fields. Point Thompson. Prudhoe Bay. Alpine. Port Barrow. Offshore rigs loom on the horizon, sending pipes full of crude oil out toward expansive gravel fields. Trucks rumble in along the Dalton Highway day and night. As we sat in the car, I asked Don why he moved to Kaktovik. His brow furrowed, then softened a bit as he looked across the tundra. “Camping with six or eight, that’s great and all,” he said, “but nothing beats the solitude. You know, when it’s so quiet you can hear your heart beat.”
I heard an inkling of nostalgia in his voice. Since Don moved to Kaktovik in the 1980s, the village has changed considerably. The North Slope of Alaska is warming at a rate almost twice the global average, and the patchwork of continuous permafrost that underlies the ground is thawing. On our daily excursions, Don pointed out places where the coastline was buckling under its own weight and crumbling into the sea. Broken and cracked, large flakes of sod had cleaved off and tumbled onto the beach. As Nora Jane, the mayor of Kaktovik, noted, “our tundra is melting, that’s our next big problem. It’s happening every summer.” In other villages, coastline erosion has been so severe that entire communities have had to be relocated, which is a frightening concept for residents who were born and raised in Kaktovik.
During the week, I was surprised to find that although most residents supported wildlife conservation and recognized climate change as a significant threat, the community held a deeply rooted animosity towards the broader environmentalist movement. Many people that I spoke with expressed the belief that environmentalists are more concerned with protecting the Refuge as an idea than with preserving the resources for the people that lived there. “Everyone is against oil drilling, but no one asks us what we want,” Tim mused to me one night at the Marsh Creek, a hint of resentment in his voice. It was true. Before I visited Kaktovik, I thought of the conflict over oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge as a black and white question: either we are willing to sacrifice public lands for economic gain or we are not. But after my visit, I had a new appreciation for the subtleties with which the community is grappling. In the face of impending oil and gas development, the residents of Kaktovik are being tasked with reconciling their hope for a better quality of life with their desire to preserve their heritage. To them, the Arctic Refuge is not an abstract concept. It is—and has long been—home.
On my last night in Kaktovik, I stood at the edge of the Beaufort Sea. The sun was setting low on the horizon, sinking heavy into the waves. The sky was awash with a watercolor of pale orange, honeysuckle, and lilac. On the horizon, the amethyst peaks of the Brooks Range emerged from the tundra. It was so quiet, I could hear my heart beat.