Sir John Franklin, having left his dying wife in London—she insisted that he depart as scheduled to search for the Northwest Passage—reached his westernmost point at a place he called Prudhoe Bay. He was on the Arctic coast of Alaska, where a featureless plain extended away to the south and ended in a maze of sharp-peaked mountains. One can locate Sir John's Prudhoe Bay in two ways today: on old mariners' charts of the Arctic Ocean or on new maps of the world's oil resources. It is the place where oil was discovered last year in what geologists suspect is one of the largest petroleum fields in the world, bigger than East Texas, bigger than Oklahoma and perhaps as big as Iraq. But Sir John had nothing good to say of the bay. Defeated by the shallowness of the water, the height of the surf, the violence of the gales and the absence of shelter, he had to turn back. That was in 1826, and for the next 142 years Prudhoe Bay cropped up only in a few accounts by Arctic explorers, who regarded it with even less enthusiasm than Franklin.
Nonetheless, Prudhoe Bay deserves some enthusiasm and attention now, not just in connection with the oil strike there but in terms of how the strike might affect sport, wildlife, conservation, wilderness areas and the attitudes of man toward his environment in this very substantial section of America. It happens that between the oilfield on Prudhoe Bay and the rest of the world lies the Brooks Range, 500 miles long and 150 miles wide, the largest untouched wilderness on the North American continent. Half the Dall sheep of the world live there, as well as enormous herds of caribou—at least 440,000, according to a cautious official estimate last year, and perhaps as many as 1.2 million—and impressive numbers of grizzlies, moose and wolves. The question that arises is not the familiar one of keeping a wild environment forever wild. The issue goes deeper than that, and it should, and it will have to be resolved by more informed and careful thinking than the do-we-exploit or don't-we-exploit philosophies that have dictated natural resources development in this country for years.
It was, perhaps ironically, the discovery of the wonders of the Brooks Range that led to the establishment of wilderness areas in the national forests of the continental United States. Robert Marshall, the first director of recreation in the U.S. Forest Service, made six exploring trips into the Brooks Range when it was unmapped and unknown. There, in the early '30s, he formed his wilderness philosophy, and he adopted the combative and intransigent position that has been the attitude of American conservationists toward their opponents ever since. "The development of Alaskan resources should be retarded," Marshall bluntly told a Senate committee in 1938—and never mind what natural wealth might lie hidden in the wilderness. Marshall urged that the whole area—not only the Brooks Range, but the coastal plain north of it, everything between the Yukon and the Arctic Ocean—should be zoned by the Federal Government to prevent any sort of industrial exploitation.
Until the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery, it seemed Marshall had a case. As far as the Brooks Range was concerned, it made sense; there were no people in the range anyway. The mountains were seen, if at all, from the air. More forbidding than the Rockies, the peaks crowded one upon the other in incredible density and variety, massive pyramids and needle-shaped spires, great metallic-looking domes and vast gray slopes slashed with black ravines and ridges, seeming less like a mountain range than something knocked over and broken in a cosmic disaster that left enormous fragments of wreckage scattered over the frozen earth.
But who could reasonably argue, after the discovery of the largest oilfield in North America, that its development should be prevented for the sake of those gigantic stones? The first news of the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery reached Fairbanks, Alaska on Jan. 16, 1968. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported guardedly that the new well was, except for some test wells in a Navy oil reserve, the only important gas discovery ever made on the Arctic slope. That was an understatement. It was among the largest producing oil wells ever drilled. A little later the
Alaska Conservation Review reported a meeting of Fairbanks conservationists with this headline: OIL BOOM THREATENS WILDLIFE RANGES. But neither conservationists nor oilmen had much to say. The atmosphere was like that in the dugout in the seventh inning of a no-hitter. And then, rather dramatically, the tension shifted to ninth-inning levels when Alaska's governor, Walter J. Hickel, was named Secretary of the Interior, an appointment that led to sharp questioning about his conservation and oil philosophies—and intentions. The Brooks Range was now not only geologically famous, but politically famous, too.
Winter hits Prudhoe Bay, the Brooks Range and Fairbanks like a frigid explosion. The lights go out. The curtain falls. For two months the mountains are a region of leaden gray-and-black shadows, with short periods of twilight at midday. It is a silent world of dim crags, large stars, dark stands of dwarf spruce trees, ice-covered rivers and frozen waterfalls hundreds of feet high. Unbelievably, a dozen species of birds remain in the mountains all winter—ptarmigan, ravens, snowy owls, gyrfalcons, jays and crossbills. Dall sheep also remain, staying on the north slopes where light snow and the prevailing winds keep the ridges bare. Caribou browse in the spruce forests south of the mountains, tawny gray shapes so completely hidden by darkness and their own restless movements that no one knows precisely where the main herds winter, except that it is somewhere between the Koyukuk and the Yukon in an unpeopled wilderness the size of Pennsylvania. Last year a herd of considerable size—92,000 according to a government wildlife expert—moved on its traditional migration path from the lichen-covered coastal plain to winter in the narrow valleys in the wildest part of the Brooks Range. For the first time the animals passed, on their way, the Atlantic Richfield drilling crews working on their wells at Prudhoe Bay.
Spring arrives like the opening of the 1812 Overture. The sun, absent since November, comes back as a faint glow in the south. Sunlight touches the tops of the mountains, while the valleys are still black as night. Each day sunshine descends lower on the slopes, and soon it is daylight all the time. In early April the sun sets about 10 at night and rises at 2 in the morning. The rest of the time there is a soft glow, like sunrise. The lights blaze up, the curtain rises and sounds like cannon roaring and armies clashing reverberate as avalanches start and frozen waterfalls crash down. In the last two weeks of May the ice breaks up on the rivers. Diamond Jenness, a young archaeologist, was stranded near Prudhoe Bay during the winter of 1913 and left an account of the coming of the season: "Water began to flow everywhere. New birds appeared.... The rivers broke out all along the coast; their roar could be heard twenty miles away and their dark waters, newly exposed to the light, reflected the somberness of the sky above. Spring had reached us at last."
When the light grows strong the caribou move north through the mountains, the cows, heavy with calves, breaking the way through the snow, the bulls following leisurely later on, with the wolves, some of them the size of ponies, following both. "You better leave the wolves out of it," says Bill Snedden, the publisher of the Daily News-Miner, "or you'll really get in trouble." No one can say anything about wolves in Alaska without starting a sort of scientific barroom fight prompted by outrageous pro-wolf or anti-wolf assertions made by people who know little about wolves. The newspapers print more about wolves than they do about oil, if you count the correspondence columns. A wolf in the Brooks Range lives well, killing one caribou a week, on the average, or about 50 a year. (This is not an outrageous deduction of my own; it can be found on page 193 of Nunamiut, by Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian scientist who lived for a year in the central Brooks Range.) Heading for their calving grounds on the north side of the mountains, into country too bleak and remote for wolves, last year's migrants, or one herd of them, had to pass a second oil well being drilled on the Sagavanirktok River, seven miles from the discovery well.
Because of the difficulty of spelling or pronouncing Sagavanirktok—an Eskimo word for fast water—the river usually is called the Sag. Not a big river, by the standards of the world's immense rivers, the Sagavanirktok is nonetheless historic. It flows steeply from the mountains into Prudhoe Bay, and in some fashion or other most of the few explorers in the Brooks Range have followed its course. The second well is called Sag River One. On June 25, 1968 news reached Fairbanks that Sag River One had come in. This time the News-Miner reported that the field was evidently one of the world's biggest. Within months, 12 drilling rigs had been flown over the mountains to the new field; the freight planes of Alaska Airlines and Interior Airways were booked ahead for 450 flights. (Current figures have dwarfed these; flights from Fairbanks now reach 120 a day, and planes are reported booked for 5,000 flights.)
Never has there been a place so plainly at the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. In the Kobuk Bar in Fairbanks an airline executive says, "Last month we had 17 pilots. This week we have 41." There was a meeting of hunters and conservationists in the clubhouse of the Tanana Valley Sportsman's Association to discuss "The Impact of Oil and Gas Discoveries on the Resources of Alaska." A professor said, yes, oil was a valuable economic resource, but wildlife, vegetation, scenery and wilderness represented potential dollars, too. Yet the conservationists sounded discouraged. Not that the Brooks Range or the coastal plain north of it are in immediate danger of devastation. The uninhabited area concerned is about the size of Italy. Local enthusiasm for the oil discovery was combined with a sense of regret at the end of isolation for the mountains. The world was about to discover the Brooks Range.