Up in the right-hand corner of Alaska, like something freezer-burned and half-remembered in the back of the national icebox, lies a place called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is the largest wildlife sanctuary in the United States. It is the size of South Carolina. It is also home to the country’s second-largest wilderness area. It has no roads, no marked trails, no developed campgrounds. The Coastal Plain, the narrow strip where the refuge meets the sea, is home to more diversity of life than almost anywhere else in the Arctic. It is the kind of place where you can pull back the tent flap with a mug of coffee in hand, as I did one morning in June, and watch a thousand caribou trot past.

The animals came slowly at first, by twos and by threes, and tentatively, lifting their black noses to catch the strange scent of 10 unbathed campers. Then they tacked across the river. Near the front was a bull with a rack big enough to place kick a football through its uprights. Mostly they were females in dun coats, serious mothers leading coltish calves that slid and played on the snowfields that still collared the tundra’s low places. Ungainly in looks, but a natural for work — each hoof a snowshoe, with hollow fur for warmth and to buoy them across gelid Arctic rivers. The calves had been born three or four days ago. Already they could walk farther in a day than a human.

The few caribou became dozens. They materialized by the hundred out of the heat-shimmer that rose off the tundra, like those lawmen bringing hot justice in old Sergio Leone films. Confident in their numbers, they surged past the encampment, urged by some twitch in the marrow to keep pushing toward the coast where ocean breezes would scatter the mosquitoes and bot flies that soon would torment them. We watched for a long time, not wanting to move and disturb anything.

“This,” someone whispered, “is sacred.”

You would think so.

In late 2017, a Congress controlled by Republicans badly wanted to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. To help win the crucial vote of Lisa Murkowski, the senior Republican senator from Alaska, the Senate added a sweetener, a provision that opened to oil drilling the refuge’s Coastal Plain, a roughly Delaware-size piece of ground where the Brooks Range reclines and the tundra tilts toward the Arctic Ocean like the baize of an old pool table.

Most of the country thinks that’s wrongheaded. Seventy percent of American voters oppose drilling on the refuge, a survey by Yale University’s Center on Climate Change Communication found at the time. They don’t want oil drilling where these calves had just been born, and where they now walked, and where wolf and bear and wolverine stalk them, and where threatened polar bears find respite in a melting world, and where more than 200 species of birds have been recorded, including many that brighten your day in the Lower 48, from the tundra swans that head to the Chesapeake, to the mallards that hunters stalk in Arkansas.

Fights such as the one over the refuge are, for most of us, abstractions — tussles over lines on a map of a place we will never see, and will never know. I was tired of this. I wanted to see this place. I wanted to see what we still have, and what we are willing to gamble, for money and for oil.

Getting on Arctic time

North of Fairbanks, the country seems to get bigger and the planes get smaller. Our four-seater arrows north, into the Brooks Range. The pilot finds a notch between mountains and sets us down on a cobbled bar beside water that’s the scuffed green of a dime-store gemstone: the Hulahula River. We transfer to a second plane, smaller still, that swoops down and deposits us downstream. We are 10, in all — a lawyer and his son, a retired teacher, retired doctors and avid birders, Libby and Victor — all here for nine days to float the river for about 90 miles on its course through the Coastal Plain, until, exhausted, the river empties itself into the Beaufort Sea.

But first, mountains. We set up camp in a great scoop of valley and wander, dazed at the sudden change of scenery after Fairbanks. The Brooks Range in summer disorients the newcomer: The rivers run north. The sun seems to rise there, too, after “setting” briefly behind the peaks each night. So far north, the mountains wear no trees at all, but instead are stripped bare, showing off the veinwork of their naked flanks. They are not so bare as they seem. What lives here grows low — lichen, moss campion in purple pillows and Arctic poppies whose dish-flowers track the sun.

The lead guide with the outfitter Arctic Wild, Andrew George, is 39 and from Dallas, but has more Alaska in him than most Alaskans born here. Each summer he runs a fish wheel on the Yukon River with his wife to cache and smoke salmon for winter, when he runs trap lines with his dog team. On his last job, he says, he was paid in gold.

At dinner George has a message for us. “We’re gonna be on Arctic time,” he says. “We’ll eat when we’re hungry. Hike when we want to. Move when we gotta move.”

Paddling north

The next morning, Patrick Henderson — assistant guide, expert boater and a great chef — whips up Spam musubi, an Hawaiian snack of grilled Spam atop a neat brick of rice, wrapped in nori. We wrestle into drysuits. The guides cinch hard on the straps of life preservers. (“You can’t drown if you can’t breathe!”) We push off in a cold spitting rain, drifting over quick green water. Restive with its course, the river chews at its banks, sending clumps of wildflowers into the water.

Henderson rams our raft into the shore and motions for quiet. Two football fields distant stands a musk ox, chewing on grass. We pile out to snap photos. The ox turns. Stamps. Nothing says “get back in the boat” like a 600-pound bovid covering ground, fast.

We drift on. There are caribou tracks on the shore, and wolf tracks that follow the caribou tracks.

‘Welcome to the Arctic Plain’

On the seventh morning the last foothills bow out. The land becomes as flat as a tabletop. The final rapid throws a slap of 45-degree water to the cheek. Call it a baptism. “Welcome to the Arctic Plain,” George says, standing in the stern of our raft like a Mississippi boatman.

So this is what all the fighting is about.

For almost a half-century, the stretch of land between mountains and sea here has been a sanctuary with an asterisk. In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which greatly expanded the original wildlife range; designated most of it as wilderness, off-limits to development; and renamed the whole place the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Congress did not include the 1.57-million-acre Coastal Plain, but directed in Section 1002 that the area continue to be studied. For nearly 50 years a battle has been waged between those who think drilling in the so-called 1002 Area is Alaska’s birthright and can be done well — the oil industry, many of Alaska’s politicians, the native corporations that would see needed funds from drilling — and those who say the place is too valuable for other reasons, and also too wild, to drill.

No one knows how much oil is under this ground. Only one exploratory well was drilled, decades ago, its results a secret. An investigation by The Times found those results disappointing. The federal government’s last estimate was that a mean 7.7 billion barrels of feasibly recoverable oil may lie under the 1002 Area, or the amount of petroleum the United States uses in one year. But opening up the area might also eventually open Native Alaskan areas for drilling, and make adjacent state lands more profitable to drill, if new pipelines and other infrastructure are built.

The 2017 tax law that opened the refuge to potential oil development requires a minimum of two lease sales in the refuge of at least 400,000 acres each. One must be held by the end of 2021, the second by 2024.

But a draft of the required environmental study released earlier this year by the Bureau of Land Management, the author and the agency that oversees drilling on public lands, contained mistakes in basic ecology and didn’t seriously look at climate change’s effect on permafrost. That’s according to nearly 60 pages of corrections and additions to the study that were proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that manages the refuge. The study even mentions a river that doesn’t exist, pointed out Michael Wald, a co-owner of Arctic Wild. Environmental groups have vowed to challenge the study and any drilling approval.

Proponents have pitched drilling as a windfall to the U.S. Treasury — $1.8 billion, by an early White House estimate. But a Times analysis has found it may yield as little as $45 million over the next decade, or less than 3% of what’s been sold to the public.

What we do know is the area’s natural value. During the brief, frenetic Arctic summer, millions of waterfowl and shorebirds use the Coastal Plain here before dispersing to every state in the union, and almost every continent. Two dozen of them are birds of “management concern” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some are in even more trouble.

Even closer to the coast are polar bears, listed as “threatened’’ under the Endangered Species Act. The population of polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea has declined 40% in recent years, thanks largely to impacts related to its shrinking sea-ice habitat. Now these bears increasingly use the Coastal Plain, where females first raise their newborn cubs.

Steven Amstrup, who for three decades was head of the federal government’s polar bear research program and now is head of Polar Bears International, has urged against energy development here. So have the 200 Alaskan members of the Wildlife Society, a professional group of wildlife biologists and managers.

An unending circuit of caribou

And then there are the caribou. The previous day, from our camp on the boundary of the 1002 Area, we watched as hundreds fed on cottongrass and willow buds. We spent the day stalking them with cameras. They always edged farther away, as if they knew the limits of an amateur’s telephoto lens.

Few Americans probably realize that their nation possesses one of the world’s great migrations. Although there are variations, most years the 218,000 animals of the Porcupine herd of barren-ground caribou move in an unending circuit — from the south side of the Brooks Range; around the eastern and southern side of the mountains; then westward in late spring onto the Coastal Plain to drop their calves. They spend the summer fattening up on tundra plants. Then they reverse course. These caribou are the original commuters. A female will walk 2,700 miles in a year, on average.

The Coastal Plain has all of this — the birds, the bears, the caribou. It is still a place that can say its own name.

A week earlier, we had briefly landed at Arctic Village, a native Gwich’in village outside the refuge’s southern boundary. The Gwich’in are against drilling. The caribou forever have walked past Arctic Village on their circuit, and their meat has fed the Gwich’in, David Smith, the second chief, told me. Where the caribou are born — where the drilling might happen — his people do not even go, he said. “This is kind of where life begins,” he said. “It’s God’s place.”

An energy industry representative told me that oil and caribou can mix, that it has been done before with success elsewhere on the North Slope.

That’s misleading, countered Ken Whitten, who, for many years, was Alaska’s lead state biologist for the Porcupine herd. Yes, caribou inhabit some areas around Prudhoe Bay, where the pipeline begins. But studies around the oil fields have found that pregnant females will avoid development. As development increased, calving caribou were pushed southward where the food wasn’t as nutritious, resulting in the mothers having lower-weight calves.

These problems will likely be exacerbated in the refuge, said Whitten. A 2002 report by him and others predicted that extensive oil development would probably stop the growth of the herd, and perhaps worse.

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