The Slippery North Slope

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. camps in the Arctic and asks why big oil can't keep its hands off America's largest patch of wilderness

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE PLACE HE'S talking about is the most ecologically significant, biologically diverse, and politically contentious slice of Alaska's 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In 1980, Congress ratified legislation to protect eight million acres of the Refuge as wilderness, but the coastal plain we've been camping on for the last two days, designated the "1002 Area," makes up about an eighth of the 11.6 million acres that remain vulnerable to development. This is in spite of the fact that the 1002 Area is America'spremier summer sanctuary for virtually every major form of Arctic wildlife—musk oxen, grizzlies, wolves, golden eagles, and caribou, as well as 135 species of birds. It is also coveted by several petroleum companies currently drilling in Prudhoe Bay, 60 miles to the west, because it sits on an estimated 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable crude oil. That's enough to cover the U.S.'s energy needs for about six months.

After hanging in limbo for 20 years, the fate of this teeming chunk of permafrost known as the American Serengeti may finally be decided on November 7. While rumors shoot through Washington that Bill Clinton might declare the 1002 Area a National Monument just after the presidential election, Alaska's industry-friendly congressional delegation is scrambling to exploit public alarm over the summer's spiking gas prices to push the opposite agenda. Since last March, GOP legislators have introduced three bills to open this part of the Refuge to drilling, and its future now hinges on who will win the White House. Al Gore has vowed to protect the 1002 Area; George W. Bush favors an infusion of rigs, airfields, and a pipeline grid that could eventually crisscross the entire coastal strip.

All of which is why the 46-year-old Kennedy, the senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a whitewater buff (he's participated in first descents on a half-dozen rivers in the Americas), is now parked alongside the Aichilik River. He's here practicing what he likes to call "adventure activism," a barnstorming tactic he's previously used to great effect in several high-profile environmental battles, including a successful bid to stop a dam project in Quebec in 1988, and a drive earlier this year to block a Mitsubishi salt plant that many feared would destroy a gray-whale nursery near Baja, California.

Adventure, of course, is what you make of it. The morning after our hike up the ridge, Kennedy plunges into the bone-numbing river, treats himself to a shampoo-and-rinse, then lathers up for a shave while the rest of us break camp to prepare for Phase Two of our North Slope tour: Prudhoe Bay. When fog delays the bush plane for several hours, forcing us to wait in a chilly wind, Kennedy remedies the situation by drenching his topo maps in white gas and using them to ignite a pile of driftwood. After the plane arrives, we fly over the watery green plain, skimming above rivers of burnished silver and snowy flocks of tundra swan. Once again, there's not a caribou in sight—until we land in Prudhoe Bay, where our pilot must turn to avoid colliding with three bulls out for a stroll across the tarmac.

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