Wilderness might be reducible, acre by acre, but wildness is something else again.
Michael Pollen, The Botany of Desire
It was early, just before dawn, when we took off from Fairbanks. We surmounted the low hills to the north and gained altiltude, but stayed low enough to see the snowy, forested terrain clearly.
The small plane was chartered to Alyeska for servicing the pipleine construction camps, and we were headed to the North Slope where the pipeline began. In December 1975, construction was focused on the pumping stations, where my company was responsible for servicing the water and sewage systems. The fourteen passengers were lined up singly down each side of the plane filling the empty seats at the front first. The passenger cabin wouldn’t get warm before we landed and we had to board single file, wearing all our arctic gear, which rendered the center aisle non-existent.
The gear and small windows interfered with the view, but the mostly unbroken forest north of Fairbanks was only intermittently interrupted by a road, homestead or utility line. Occasionally we could see the pipeline haul road and the pipeline itself or the right of way where construction wasn’t yet completed. I knew from driving that stretch that the forest on the hill tops changed from the normal pine, aspen and fir trees to stunted, wind-twisted dwarfs due to permafrost interference with their roots.
We crossed over the Yukon River, and could see numerous camps or homesteads along the river, accessible only by boat. From that point north there was little disturbed forest, except for the occasional cabin site and sometimes a glimpse of the pipeline or haul road.
The foothills of the Brooks Range revealed rivers and streams and less dense vegetation. River valleys cut into the mountains, but the mountains were gentler than the Alaska Range visible from Fairbanks — more like the Appalachians or the lesser mountains back east.
The north face of the mountains dropped steeply to a vast expanse of snow-covered plain, tundra seemingly devoid of trees or any vertical features. Frozen stream channels and lakes were apparent under the snow. Although it was mid-day, dusk and the shadow of the mountains made it difficult to see details at a distance. The slash of roads and the pipeline marred the surface, and the several camps were scattered about like piles of debris. Smoke or steam wafted up from every structure.
I observed the sun at noon as it peeked briefly over the mountains to the south. The dim light and haze limited my view to the east and west where the mountains blurred into the distance.
The van to Pump Station One bounced over the icy roads, threading its way through the traffic and the few buildings and multitude of equipment, vehicles, drums and trash of all sorts. What couldn’t be burned in the incinerators was piled up awaiting transfer out by ship or by truck. Nothing was supposed to be left behind.
The flat surface of the arctic plain was frozen then, but would thaw in the summers to create bogs, marshes and small lakes — perfect summer habitat for migratory waterfowl. However, the subsurface wouldn’t thaw, remaining permafrost unless disturbed. The pipeline for the heated oil was constructed on insulated H-shaped braces to prevent the pilings from melting the permafrost. Most structures were also built on insulated pilings, otherwise the heat from a building could gradually melt the permafrost and the building would sink into the ground.
Whether roads and other surface disturbances caused similar problems was unresolved when I was there, but it was a serious concern for opponents of the pipeline. The pipeline was controversial and numerous environmental studies attempted to determine whether the impacts would be justified by the oil produced. In the wake of the 1973 energy crisis, approval was inevitable.
The small glimpse that I had of the North Slope revealed industrial sites, utility lines and roads littering a large, wild, previously pristine swath of nature. The only wildlife I saw was an Arctic Fox being fed (illegally) at night by one of the operators. Small, furry and white, it sat in the light from the open door nearly invisible against the snow except for the black nose and eyes.
Night up there was still and deep black, with stars crowding the sky. Far to the north, a small band of green twisted and moved near the horizon. — the Aurora Borealis. In Fairbanks I had seen northern lights close by that seemed to seethe and writhe as they sank behind the hills into the trees. On the North Slope they moved slowly and were silent.
When I left, I was conscious that only a minute after takeoff, the disturbances and evidence of man had disappeared. The unbroken wilderness rolled by beneath the plane until we once again crossed over the Yukon River back into the domain of man.
Today, Republicans and their Koch allies are pushing for more drilling and development of the arctic plain, in the one area set aside for protection of the habitat and wildlife. They talk about how the ‘footprint’ of the facilities is very small — narrow roads and tiny drill pads. Maybe that’s true, but I recall something an Alaskan old-timer asked me back on the North Slope,
“How many turds can you put in a punch bowl before it’s not good to drink?”
Seems to me we already have too many.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, https://www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/
Opposition to development, https://defenders.org/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge , http://refugeassociation.org/advocacy/refuge-issues/arctic/