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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Debbie is of a type, though a fairly small, rare one. It is composed of thirtyish people, for some reason more often women than men, who were very much caught up in the restless youth movement of the mid-1960s. They seem to have been purified by the acid tests of those days rather than driven into radical chic or cynicism as so many of their contemporaries were. They are articulate, passionate people who have turned to a kind of gentle, clinical humanism and are preoccupied with living virtuous private lives—who seem to be forever examining their own actions to determine whether they are sufficiently honest, open and tender. In many ways the Debbies seem overqualified not only as tour guides and cocktail waitresses but for our times. Having come across one, a person would be a damn fool to ask her to go home. The Debbies vary, of course, but many of them are cut along the lines of this Debbie, tall and straight. She has straight features, straight hair, straight clothes, is a straight talker, a straight woman.

"This is how the Brooks Range affected me," she said. "In the beginning I was frightened, not at all sure that I could take care of myself and not get lost or mauled by a bear. Then gradually I found that I could get along, that there was more to me than I thought, and this, of course, gave a great lift to my pride. After that came the feeling that I was supersensitive, very aware of everything around me, of what I was and might be. I was excited by the rare and unusual things I was seeing, feeling, and by the beauty of the place. I cannot explain it any better than to say I experienced joy in the Brooks Range. Others seem to undergo the same metamorphosis."

"But can you equate this ephemeral state that a few can experience with the practical benefit oil has for many?"

"Well I'm not so sure about those practical general benefits. The people who are going to benefit are those who make a lot of money from oil, and I don't think there are more of them than backpackers. The oil people say, "Look, we have a shortage, we are going to have to live in colder, darker houses, drive less and slower. If we open up Alaska, strip the coal of Wyoming, do some other things, we can go back to the good old warm, bright days.' This is like an addict looking for another fix. It may be easy but I am not sure it is practical. If we got less oil and used less, we would certainly have a cleaner, healthier place. Maybe if it wasn't so easy, we would find something better to do with ourselves than getting our kicks by turning on switches.

"They say they will pump the Prudhoe field dry in 30 years. Maybe the most practical thing would be to leave it there for now. Maybe we will find better energy or that we were living better without as much oil. But even if none of this turned out to be right, if we couldn't kick the oil habit, then it would still be there and we might need it more in 2004 than we do now."

"You've heard it, maybe you invented it, that the pipeline will ruin the idea of the wilderness, even if it doesn't do much physical damage."

"I didn't invent it, but I feel that way. You've been in Atigun. You know it wouldn't be the same place if all you had to do was park your car and walk in 15 minutes from the road. If it were just the pipeline, maybe it might not be so bad. But they are talking about building a second pipeline from Prudhoe and there will be gas lines. There is going to be a road along the pipeline and that may be the worst thing of all. People are going to drive in to see the scenery and have a little adventure. They are going to need service stations and restaurants, Johns, motels, campgrounds, trails, side roads. I am not knocking it. Central Park is a kind of wilderness for a lot of people and a good thing to have. Yellowstone and Yosemite are another kind of experience. But it is a bad thing if this is all we can afford to have. It is a kind of continuum. At one end may be Central Park and toward the other something like the Brooks Range where you have to work to get in, test your body and mind to have the kind of joy I was trying to tell you about. Not many people can have that kind of experience at any one time, but as long as you keep it, everyone, now and in the future, can potentially have the experience. If it is messed up it is gone forever. There will be no opportunity for anyone to experience that kind of pleasure. We will have to do without it and I don't think that is progress. It will mean that we are poorer than we are now."

THE SECONDARY HIGHWAY: From Fairbanks south to Valdez pipeline construction crews will, for the most part, utilize existing highways. To the north, between Fairbanks and Prudhoe it will be necessary to build 400 miles of new road that will roughly parallel the pipeline. One of the stipulations attached to the pipeline agreement is that Alyeska must build its construction road to meet specifications of a secondary highway. When the oil begins to flow, Alyeska must turn this road over to the state, which thereafter will maintain it.

"The stipulation requiring a secondary highway was not our idea," says John Ratterman, Alyeska's public affairs director in Anchorage. "When construction is completed we will need only 200 men stationed along the pipeline to oversee it and operate pumping stations. We plan to supply our crews by air. We have no need for the road and as a public highway it could cause problems for us. If the world were different, I would like to see development north of the Yukon barred. But with the world as it is, we need oil resources, and the pipeline is justified in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number. The road may be a different matter. I think a public road through the Brooks Range will significantly increase the pressure on wildlife from hunters. Northern Alaska is not Africa. Big-game populations are relatively small and because of the harsh conditions they do not replenish themselves rapidly. I am sure other examples of what impact a road and increased use might have on a fragile environment will occur to you."

Bruce Campbell is the Alaska State Highway Commissioner, a veteran politician with the moves and manner of such.

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