CANADA

Battles across borders

Yukoners fight Washington over caribou land

BRIAN BERGMAN June 3 1991
CANADA

Battles across borders

Yukoners fight Washington over caribou land

BRIAN BERGMAN June 3 1991

Battles across borders

Yukoners fight Washington over caribou land

As he has done every year since he was a boy, Chief Roger Kaye of the Old Crow Indian band spent part of this spring tracking caribou along the banks of the Porcupine River. Like most of the 300 residents of Old Crow, an Arctic village in the northwestern Yukon, Kaye says that he looks forward to the annual spring and fall hunts as the caribou pass nearby on their way to and from calving grounds in the U.S. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge along the northern coast of neighboring Alaska. The hunts provide meat on which most Old Crow families—and 7,000 other native people along the Canadian and U.S. Arctic coast—depend for sustenance throughout the year.

“It’s always one of the happiest times when the first caribou come,” Kaye said in an interview. But the tiny community’s joy at this spring’s hunt was clouded by anxiety over a debate in Washington.

There, legislators are considering whether to permit oiland-gas drilling in the Alaskan refuge—a move that northern natives, environmentalists and the Canadian government say could devastate the 180,000-animal Porcupine caribou herd. Said Kaye: “The U.S. Congress is making decisions about our livelihood—and it’s scary.” Developments on Capitol Hill last week ap-

peared to lend substance to Kaye’s concerns. After a month of debate, the Senate energy committee approved a new National Energy Security Act that, for the first time, would allow oü-and-gas leasing in the 19-million-acre Alaskan refuge. The bill, which must still pass the full Senate and the House of Representatives, represents the latest twist in a fierce five-year battle that has pitted environmentalists on both sides of the border against the oil lobby and the Alaskan government, which favors exploiting what it claims is North America’s largest untapped oil reserve. In recent months, however, the advocates of development, who include President George Bush, have enlisted a potent new argument by linking Arctic drilling to American concern over energy supplies in the wake of the Gulf War. Said energy committee chairman Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat and a cosponsor of the bill: “I do not see how we can send troops to fight in the Persian Gulf but not explore the most promising prospect for domestic oil.” Conservation, not energy security, was the prime motivation for creation of the Arctic refuge in 1960 and for the decision by Congress to double its size 20 years later. Still, shortly after the 1980 expansion, Congress

ordered the U.S. department of the interior to assess the potential oil wealth of a 1.5-million-acre strip of the refuge along the Beaufort Sea. In 1986, the department reported that the area could contain as much oil as Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield, 60 miles to the west, which accounts for almost one-quarter of U.S. domestic oil production. The department urged Congress to allow drilling on the coastal strip—even though it acknowledged that the resulting disruption of caribou calving grounds would likely reduce the Porcupine herd by up to 40 per cent.

Those findings set off a flurry of competing proposals either to allow drilling or to declare the area a wilder^ ness site in perpetuity. To register 9 Canadian opposition to development, S federal officials arranged for both na| tive hunters and representatives of 5 the Yukon and Northwest Territories “ governments to visit Washington. Pointing out that Canada had set aside 3 million acres of adjoining territory in the northern Yukon as a wilderness preserve in 1984, the northerners accused the United States of breaching commitments to protect the region’s migratory wildlife. Citing estimates that the refuge may contain only enough recoverable oil to supply U.S. needs for six months, Yukon government leader Tony Penikett, for one, declared: “It’s a choice between a few weeks of energy supply for U.S. consumers and a native livelihood that goes back thousands of years.” The Canadians found ready allies among U.S. environmentalists. They stressed that as well as providing breeding grounds for caribou, the refuge is home to rare musk-oxen, polar and grizzly bears, snow geese and tundra swans. Said Michael Matz, chairman of the Alaska Coalition, which represents 75 environmental groups: “It’s a unique habitat.”

But proponents argue that caribou can coexist with oil development. They point to the much smaller Central Arctic herd, which ranges near the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, and which has tripled in size since that field was developed in the early 1970s. Said Alaska senator and energy committee member Frank Murkowski: “We don’t have to choose between Arctic oil development and environmental protection.”

For his part, environmentalist Matz remains “cautiously optimistic” that the proposal to drill in the Arctic refuge will not survive a full vote of the Senate, expected by the fall. That would be welcome news to Chief Kaye. “If anything happened to the caribou,” he told Maclean ’s, “it would be a disaster to the people of Old Crow.” But with Washington’s most powerful figures insisting that the United States must increase domestic oil production, those voices are likely to be heard more loudly on Capitol Hill than are the concerns of a tiny Canadian village.

BRIAN BERGMAN