SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
March 25, 1974
The Alaska pipeline will stretch through icy wastes to the margins of the earth. There in the Arctic mountains the author considers this hotline for man in his emergency
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March 25, 1974

Power And Light On A Lonely Land

The Alaska pipeline will stretch through icy wastes to the margins of the earth. There in the Arctic mountains the author considers this hotline for man in his emergency

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The logic behind this point of view—that come heaven, hell or injunctions, Big Oil was going to get its pipeline—is not hard to follow. That the Galbraith Lake camp and others were being built on the tundra while politicians, lawyers and academics supposedly were conducting a public debate about what should or should not be built on the tundra tends to set one thinking cynically. Oil spokesmen, of course, explain things differently. They say that in the interest of bringing the benefits of more oil to the people as soon as possible they have already invested well over a billion dollars in the Arctic operation. That this investment, the Galbraith Lake men, front-end loaders, etc. should have sat idle for three years while the citizenry was arguing about whether it wanted to be so benefited has been silly and created unnecessary financial hardship for hardworking, good-hearted oil people.

Beyond its existence and substance, perhaps the most surprising thing about Galbraith Lake is that this camp 200 miles on the far side of the Arctic Circle may be, in terms of creature comforts, one of the coziest places in which an American man could winter in 1973-74. The living quarters are comfortable and convenient after the antiseptic fashion of a Holiday Inn. The buildings are warm to toasty. The food is magnificent in high-calorie cholesterol style, running to large steaks, chops, hams, slabs of bacon, fresh milk, eggs, fruits, vegetables, salads, oven loads of warm pies, cakes and pastries.

One midnight after a hard day of consuming five Travis McGee mysteries, the urge came for a little exercise, a stroll from the recreation lounge to the dining room. The camp was asleep. The only sounds were the hum of a generator and soft music from a stereo whose owner had been overtaken by sleep, rising and falling with snores. In the bright, stainless dining room the coffeepot was hot, its red eye glowing. Next to it a table was loaded with cookies, doughnuts, sweet rolls, apples, oranges and bananas.

For some reason it was the bananas that seemed to be bursting with significance, like a complicated dream or a mystic's point of flame. It was as if there had never been such an exquisite symbol of human ingenuity as a giant pile of bananas lying on a spotless table in a stuffy room on the north slope of the Brooks Range. For a surrealistic moment the bananas seemed balanced on the great mountain of labor, energy and calculation that brought them up from Costa Rica.

The bananas served as a catalyst for thought. Every species has a kind of biological heartland, a niche in which it is well adapted to live by using the resources found there. Changes in the environment created by inanimate forces or by the activities of competitive creatures may drive the species out of the heartland into the margins of its range, where survival may be possible for a time but is difficult. More commonly, creatures become too numerous and compete with each other for the heartland resources and in consequence force themselves into the margins.

White-tailed deer have provided examples of this phenomenon. A few good years, in terms of population growth, may be followed by several terrible ones. The inflated population will exhaust the depleted resources, stripping forage from the land, even digging out the roots of plants. Then the herds will move into marginal places—swamps, heavily shaded forests, upper elevations—where they must use increasing amounts of energy to obtain decreasing amounts of food. A sign of their predicament is something called a browse line. A browse line is created in a forest at about the height of an adult deer's jaws, if the deer is standing upright on its hind legs. Below the line roots, leaves, stems, bark, even small branches will be stripped bare by the desperate animal.

Sometimes a species will be overwhelmed by the hardships of marginal existence and will disappear from the area, or disappear forever, everywhere. More commonly, the crisis will drastically reduce the size of the community and the vigor of the survivors. They will linger on in enfeebled circumstances until such time as the heartland resources are replenished by natural processes. No matter what the outcome, dependence on marginal habitat is invariably a sign of a species in trouble. Individuals, in search of stimulation or by accident, may wander into the hinterlands, even live there, but substantial numbers of a species appear in the margins only because of blight of one sort or another in their home territory.

The north slope of the Brooks Range always has been exceedingly marginal so far as humans are concerned. This is obvious on top of an ice sheet in a nylon tent in a storm in Atigun Canyon. It is less obvious in a Galbraith Lake pipeline camp insulated by conveniences and comforts, but it may be no less true. Awesome amounts of effort and energy were expended to get all those things to the tundra and keep them there at the end of a long, complicated, vulnerable lifeline. A pile of Costa Rican bananas on the banks of Galbraith Lake is a marvel, a wonderful testimonial to the power and genius of man. But it is also possible that the bananas are the equivalent of a human browse line, an obvious sign that there is trouble in the heartland.

PRUDHOE BAY: When it is operative, the Prudhoe Bay field will occupy about a quarter of a million acres between the multichanneled mouths of the Sagavanirktok and Kuparuk rivers. This is delta country, a flat, frozen plain of gravel and silt washed down from the Brooks Range. Wells 9,000 feet deep are needed to reach the oil, which lies under gravel and 2,000 feet of permafrost. In comparison to others, the Prudhoe reservoir is considered a shallow, easily accessible one since a 1�-mile drill is now commonplace for oilmen.

The field is leased by 11 firms. However, two of these companies—ARCO and British Petroleum—because of the size of their holdings and degree of their interest have been designated as the field operators. They will work and manage the field, while the other participants in the consortium will share expenses and profits in proportion to their holdings. For production purposes Prudhoe has been divided in half, an East Section to be operated by ARCO and the West Section which will be BP country. The substantial involvement of British Petroleum (48% of whose stock is owned by the British government) in the Alaska oil operation has given rise to some chauvinistic sniping. A principal argument advanced by oilmen was that the Prudhoe field must be opened to make the United States less dependent upon foreigners for fossil fuel. The major role of BP in the Arctic, as well as persistent rumors that much of the British oil produced in Alaska will be sold in Japan, has tended to turn this argument back against the oilmen.

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