A Major Milestone in REP’s History: August 2004
Three REP leaders explored the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
This trip to and through the stunningly beautiful Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, compliments of the Juneau-based Alaska Coalition, was designed to give key REP leaders—President Martha Marks, Policy Director Jim DiPeso, and Ohio REP Coordinator Fran Buchholzer—the insights that they would need to help save it from the threat of oil and gas exploration that everybody in the conservation and environmental community knew would be coming the following year.
And it worked! In 2005, REP became a much-praised player in the ultimately successful effort to save the refuge. This page includes information about that battle, as well as other photos.
Alas, this pristine place—one of America’s finest remaining wilderness areas—still needed saving again in 2026-2020, when the Trump Administration targeted it for oil and gas exploration.
Fortunately, Jim DiPeso’s marvelous “Arctic Refuge Chronicles” (below) are just as inspiring and timely now as when he first shared them with the world in the fall of 2004.
Jim DiPeso’s Arctic Refuge Chronicles
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Still as fresh as when it first appeared in the fall 2004 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter.
There is nothing like an Alaska experience to make an individual feel small. And that’s a good thing.
In the Great Land, nature’s colossal scale dissolves all human pretensions. The monumental size and wildness of the Alaskan landscape takes hold of your awareness in ways that even the most impressive of man’s works cannot.
Big mountains. Alaska’s ranges are bracing redoubts of rock, cold, and remoteness, boasting peaks higher than better-known massifs in the Lower 48.
Big wetlands. The Copper River Delta joins land and sea in a 700,000- acre paradise for millions of shorebirds and fleets of fat salmon.
Big forests. The Tongass National Forest is part of the largest coastal temperate rainforest on Earth.
Big ice. Alaska glaciers could swallow entire human settlements.
And a big wildlife refuge. At 19 million acres, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest protected place in a conservation system established 101 years ago by Theodore Roosevelt. The refuge contains six distinct ecological zones and is home to bears, caribou, musk oxen, Dall sheep, wolves, foxes, and dozens of less celebrated creatures. The refuge hosts nearly 200 species of migratory birds from all over the world.
A national argument has raged on whether the refuge should be opened to oil drilling. The debate goes deeper than policy issues such as energy security or wildlife conservation. It speaks to deep-seated, sometimes conflicting ethos about the land—the freedom to tap its riches for today, the responsibility to conserve its vitality for future generations.
Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) stands strongly for protection. In a world grown more crowded, stressful, and artificial, the refuge is one of the few places in America where the primal forces that gave rise to life and beauty can be experienced on an epic scale. We are convinced that lasting solutions to our nation’s energy problems can be found without turning our last wild places into regretful memories of a lost heritage.
There is nothing like personal experience to strengthen the force of such arguments. So, we—REP President Martha Marks, Ohio REP Coordinator Fran Buchholzer and I, REP’s Policy Director—gladly accepted an invitation offered by the Juneau-based Alaska Coalition to see the refuge for ourselves.
First Day, August 3
A trip to the Alaska wilderness requires preparation for any eventuality, even in the summer. My outfit included waterproof boots, hiking boots, rain gear, thermal underwear, jacket, gloves, wool cap, wool socks, and wool sweater. With body prepared, I brought a volume of essays about the Arctic refuge to prepare my mind.
A Fairbanks motel lobby was the staging area where our group of eight Arctic explorers packed our gear for the trip. We headed to the bush plane terminal in a van loaded with tents, food, and two deflated river rafts… our possessions and equipment packed into dry bags—waterproof containers rolled tight and latched down.
Traveling on bush planes is not for the impatient. Pilots are ready when they’re ready; planes leave when they leave. No sense fretting. Relax and get acquainted with your trip mates.
Which, in addition to Martha, Fran and me, included:
- Dan Ritzman, our lead trip guide and campaign director for the Alaska Coalition in Washington, DC;
- John McWhorter, a guide affiliated with Arctic Wild, our trip outfitter;
- Chris Soderstrom, the Alaska Coalition’s public affairs director;
- Brad Stone, a Newsweek reporter checking out the refuge for a spread about energy issues that the magazine plans to publish;
- David Klein, a voluble Arctic biologist, now retired from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
On the first bush plane, we flew north, crossed the Arctic Circle, and landed in Arctic Village, a Gwich’in settlement at the southern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Gwich’in are natives whose lives and culture have been woven around the refuge’s caribou for thousands of years.
A cheerful local named Joel gave us a quick tour of the village, including a 1920s-era church being renovated.
The next bush plane was piloted by Dirk Nikisch, a colorful sort with a talent for plain speaking, little use for bloviating politicians, and a skilled hand at the controls of his half-century-old, single-engine plane.
Dirk put us down on the tundra. There we were, at 69 degrees north in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Spongy ground, a treat to walk, sit and lie on. A vast expanse of sedges, fireweed, low-lying willows, mosses, lichens, wildflowers and grasses stretching across plains and gentle rises to the spectacular Shublik and Sadlerochit Mountains to the south and east. Light breeze, blue sky, cool temperatures, natural quiet. A short distance to the west, the steady gurgling of the Canning River flowing north toward the Arctic Ocean.
Nature at its wildest, wholly primitive. I could have been transported back in time a thousand years and not known the difference.
We were experiencing a wilderness, where, in the eloquent language of the Wilderness Act, “man is a visitor who does not remain.” But bears remain. Brown bears, quite large and quite fast on the run. Bear lessons: No food in any tent. If a bear approaches, stand your ground. If the bear moves closer, act bizarrely, shouting and waving your arms. Never run. Have your “bear bomb” pepper spray ready at all times. Spray if the bear closes to within 10 to 15 feet.
We saw no bears on the trip. Too bad for us, lucky for them.
Professor Klein unrolled his maps and gave a lesson on the oil development issue. Oil beneath the refuge’s coastal plain is likely to be sitting in small pools. Extracting it would require an infrastructure of drilling pads, pipelines, processing facilities, dormitories, utility lines, roads and airstrips.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton insists that oil development would affect only a small portion of the refuge. Look at the bigger picture, Klein suggested. Oil development would open the door to wider coastal development that would upset the coastal plain’s entire ecosystem of plants, rivers, wetlands, and wildlife.
Through Klein’s spotting scope, we saw bands of caribou scooting across the tundra. Both male and female caribou have antlers, although the males’ head gear is larger and more elaborate. They are curious creatures. Every so often, a few stopped to stare at us, then moved on. At a post-dinner walk east of the river, blueberry plants offered a modest Arctic dessert. More caribou were marching toward the river, answering inner imperatives that we could only guess at.
Former Interior Secretary Fred Seaton, who persuaded President Eisenhower to establish the Arctic Wildlife Range in 1960, said the coastal plain is “one of the world’s great wildlife areas.” He was right.
Current Interior Secretary Norton, who is responsible for the refuge’s stewardship on behalf of her 295 million employers, was once quoted as saying that the coastal plain is “not beautiful.” She is wrong.
Second Day, August 4
Strike the tents, re-pack the dry bags, inflate and load the rafts. We set off on two days of rafting down the Canning River. The river is a gentle float free of demanding rapids, allowing visitors to appreciate the passing views— big sky, circling birds, rolling tundra, mother caribou with calves, and freedom from technological noise.
Gulls shrieked at our presence, prodding us to move along. Golden eagles soared above the riverbank. Long-tailed jaegers showed off their odd plumage as they flew above the river’s gentle riffles.
Swooping and circling, Arctic terns displayed their crisp, fork-tailed form. Arctic terns are the class of the migratory bird world. They breed in the Arctic, then head south for the winter… way south, all the way to the Antarctic. Every year, Arctic terns fly more than 20,000 miles.
As the rafts floated downstream, the mountain ranges south of the coastal plain receded. Spread before us was a panorama with the look and feel of America’s short-grass heartland in olden times—a sweeping vista of immense plains and big sky. During the afternoon lunch break, we took off our boots and savored the soft tundra vegetation between our toes.
The Arctic is not normally associated with barefoot frolics, but the weather was unusually warm. This far north, summer is supposed to be a one-act play. Lately, however, Arctic summers have become longer—melting glaciers, thinning pack ice, thawing permafrost, and drying out forests in Alaska’s interior. Natives with generations of experience note that wildlife look unhealthy and are behaving strangely.
To the river’s east lay the Arctic refuge’s “1002 area”—Section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The law forbids oil production and leasing in the 1.5 million-acre 1002 area without an act of Congress. An energy bill approved by the House in 2003 would grant such authorization. A bipartisan majority in the Senate has resisted, to their great credit.
To the river’s west lay Alaska state lands not under federal restrictions. We spotted abandoned 55-gallon oil drums and test wells.
Mosquitoes—uncharismatic minor fauna that thrive in the boggy conditions of the coastal plain—appeared at camp the second night. To mosquitoes, your carbon dioxide exhalations are a dinner bell. Up from the tundra they flew at each passing breath.
Despite the winged tormentors, dinner was superb. The trip guides handled food preparation like master chefs. For breakfast, hot oatmeal. Lunches were deli picnics served during rafting breaks: meats, cheeses, crackers, and candies laid out on a blanket. Dinners were camp gourmet —burritos the first night, pasta the second; stir-fry on rice on the third. Between meals, snack attacks were satisfied with gorp, a tasty concoction of nuts and chocolate.
Some of the best dining around can be had on river rafting trips. There’s a technical term for it—float and bloat.
As the evening progressed, the sun wheeled toward the north, teasing the horizon, but never quite slipping below at this high latitude. There is no need for a watch to keep your time bearings when the sun is always out. Once you’re oriented spatially, the sun can serve as a fine analog clock.
But who’s counting? Severed from their technological context, minutes and seconds lose meaning in the wild. You eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired. The rhythms of the body re-connect to the rhythms of nature, calming the rhythms of too-busy minds.
Third Day, August 5
Last day for paddling north. A cold wind kicked up as we neared the Arctic Ocean. Both boats struggled to pass through gravelly shallows. Miniature waterfalls poured from the cut banks, dropping water into the river from the water table lying above the permafrost.
PHOTO TO COME: Portage gets us through the gravelly shallows © Martha Marks
Water is a precious commodity on the tundra. Eight to nine months of snow cover belies the fact that snowfall is relatively scant. Gravel mining for oilfield development would drastically change riparian areas that are critical components of the coastal plain ecosystem.
We had paddled as far north as the guides thought wise. Beyond, as the Canning approaches the Arctic Ocean, the river splits into numerous channels, slowing the current dramatically.
We climbed a bluff, then took a leisurely walk eastward up a long rise into the coastal plain. The enormous vista offered a view of mountains hulking to the south. To the north, a low cloudbank covered the edge of the continent. Beyond lay the ocean and pack ice. Next landfall: Spitzbergen, Europe’s northernmost place.
PHOTO TO COME: Cotton flowers © Martha Marks
Cirrus clouds drifted across the sky. Bogs, puddles, and meltwater lakes held precious water for the tundra food web. An easterly wind bent delicate cotton flowers, sending their seed elsewhere on the coastal plain to start a new generation. A spectacle of open space and timelessness, what Theodore Roosevelt called the “lonely freedom” to be had in the “wide, waste spaces of the Earth.
PHOTO TO COME: “ Willow Ptarmigan in driftwood © Martha Marks
At riverside afterwards, a willow ptarmigan cruised along the gravel. At dinner, a plump ground squirrel, dubbed “El Gordo,” amused us by begging for scraps. Like all prey, El Gordo lives a staccato, skittish life. Even in their burrows, ground squirrels are not safe. Bears will excavate burrows looking for meat.
PHOTO TO COME: “El Gordo” visits Jim DiPeso and Fran Buchholzer at dinnertime © Martha Marks
Early morning. Dawn, if there is such a thing where the sun never sets. I walked slowly across the tundra and kept an eye out for bears. Here, bears are kings of the roost. Edgy watchfulness for their presence imparts a lesson in grace, humility, and respect that only wilderness can teach. Walk slowly, douse the mental chatter, look around, and soak in the clean sights, slow time, and unforgettable impressions of sky, land, water, and quiet—the original wild America. This is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
PHOTO TO COME: Dawn mist rises over the Canning alongside our camp © Martha Marks
Last Day, August 6
It was time to leave the refuge to the bears, birds, and caribou. A bush plane took us to our next stop, Prudhoe Bay and the town of Deadhorse, Alaska.
PHOTO TO COME: Charming Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay © Martha Marks
The contrast with the refuge was jarring. Pipelines, roads, airstrips, noise, bustle, barrels, trucks, cars, dust, fumes, fences, rules, regulations, smelly restrooms, bad cafeteria food, and worst of all, television. The only charm came from Denver, a plump tabby that is Deadhorse’s one and only pet cat. Denver even has his own souvenir T-shirt, on sale at the general store where he hangs out.
PHOTO TO COME: Charming Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay © Martha Marks
Prudhoe is the nucleus of an oil production complex sending nearly 1 million barrels of oil a day down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The “slope,” as the workers call it, accounts for nearly 20 percent of U.S. production.
Oil production is a heavy industry requiring powerful equipment, large work crews, and complex infrastructure. One look at Prudhoe tells you there is no way an oil production complex could be tiptoed into the Arctic refuge without disfiguring the place.
PHOTO TO COME: Charming Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay © Martha Marks
Ironies abound. Oil was an unavoidable necessity for enjoying the Arctic refuge. Oil refined into fuel transported us to and from the tundra. Oil was feedstock for polymers fabricated into our camping equipment and the very clothes on our backs.
It is too simplistic to blame America’s high oil dependence on politicians or oil companies. Our dangerous ride on an accelerating oil treadmill is the legacy of many decisions, both individual and societal.
Nevertheless, America’s current energy diet, with its heavy servings of oil, carries serious risks, like the heart attacks awaiting those who indulge in too many fatty foods.
America is importing more oil as U.S. fields decline and demand soars. Since oil is traded in a global market, price and supply are influenced by faraway events and dysfunctional regimes outside U.S. control. The more we depend on the global oil market, the greater our vulnerability to price shock or supply disruptions.
Rising demand from the U.S., China and other nations is tightening the market, raising price volatility and sowing the seeds of potential conflict.
PHOTO TO COME: Prudhoe Bay © Martha Marks
Adding a relatively small bucket of Arctic refuge oil to the global petroleum pool would do little to solve this systemic supply-and-demand problem. Drilling the refuge would mean surrendering to old habits rather than finding long-term solutions, like a heart patient who “solves” his weight problem by buying a bigger pair of pants.
Even if the economic issues could be solved, burning oil injects carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s risky behavior, because we’re tampering with complex atmospheric systems that govern climate.
Climate is the cradle providing hospitable conditions that support human civilization. Rock the cradle and those conditions may change in ways likely to be costly and unpleasant. Early warning bells are ringing in Alaska. Sea levels are rising. Weather patterns are tending toward extremes. Seasonal cues that guide wildlife feeding and reproduction are off kilter.
Old habits depart reluctantly. Patients resist doctors’ warnings to change their ways, but delay only makes necessary change that much harder. As writer Bill McKibben likes to say, the laws of physics and the laws of Congress are on a collision course, and the laws of physics are not likely to yield.
Trimming our oil appetite and phasing in a new energy menu will require enough maturity to imagine better alternatives and enough discipline to implement them.
Practicing maturity and discipline means establishing boundaries. Far from being constraining, boundaries break down mental walls, opening the door to fresh thinking.
Leaving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just as it is, as nature made it, will establish one such boundary. In the Arctic wilderness, we will find the freedom to make better choices.