The Arctic coastal plain and humanity's debt to nature

ANOTHER section of rare wilderness is before Congress to be opened up for oil and gas development: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Established in 1960 as the 9 million-acre Arctic Range, this refuge was expanded in 1980 to a total of 19 million acres, with 8 million acres set aside as permanent wilderness. But the 125-mile coastline of the refuge (1.5 million acres of coastal plain) was left unprotected because of oil potential. This coastal plain is referred to as the 1002 area. It is important to realize that 90 percent of Alaska's North Slope is already open to oil and gas development. The 1002 area is the last 125 miles of untouched coastline. And this last stretch of wild coastal plain is a critical area for the entire Arctic Refuge, because thousands of animals and millions of birds use this spot for calving, staging, nesting, and feeding. The 1002 area cannot be treated as a separate entity. Disturb this coastal plain, and the wildlife throughout the refuge could be in jeopardy.

Despite the inevitable destruction of the refuge's wilderness, opening up the coastal plain for oil development simply represents captivity - the feeling of no escape from the plundering of mankind. No silence, no reverence. And what confusion must the animals experience? Invaded once more, they will be forced to find somewhere else to breed, give birth, feed, and survive. Only this time there is no place else to go.

The cooperation needed for any species to survive in the severe climate of the Arctic is extraordinary. The snows are absent for only 2 to 3 months a year, and year round the ground stays permanently frozen 2 to 3 feet below the surface.

Even so, the abundance of wildlife is amazing. Animals such as caribou, moose, white Arctic foxes, wolverines, prehistoric musk oxen, brown bears, grizzlies, Dall sheep, wolves, and polar bears all depend on the Arctic refuge in its untouched condition. At various times during the year the 1002 area is also used by golden eagles, Arctic terns, loons, and millions of migrating ducks, geese, and swans (135 species in all).

The Interior Department has estimated a 19 percent chance, at best, that the 1002 area could supply the United States with 3.5 billion barrels of oil - only a few months' worth, hardly a guarantee to our national security.

In the 1940s Joseph Kinsey Howard, in his book ``Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome,'' said that in the West ``there has been no continuity, no sense of debt to the land.'' Howard said the American Indians recognized this quickly and ``learned that the more a white man sees, the more he seizes - and that what the white man takes he uses briefly and wantonly and casts aside.'' Is this to be the fate of the coastal plain? If so, it appears that we have learned nothing from our mistakes.

The separation from, and ignorance of, the natural world around us is most disturbing, as if it had nothing to do with our very existence. We seem to be losing sight of the fact that nature provides more than the resources needed for survival and comfort. ``This fragile earth, our island home,'' is also a stage for seeking wisdom, a place for spiritual growth.

The 1002 area needs to be set aside as wilderness. Couldn't we set aside the 1002 area as an offering of thanksgiving to our creator? We are so indebted to the land and to the wildlife it contains. It is time we adopted a ``reverent partnership with nature,'' and began living in ``honorable alliance'' with it, as our native Americans did so long ago. It's not too late.

Heather Fern is a concerned citizen and homemaker living in Jackson, Wyo.

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