INTERVIEW WITH SUBHANKAR BANERJEE:
The Argument for Keeping the Arctic Refuge in its Natural State


 
Seasons of Life and Land
   
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How did a scientist from India wind up in the Arctic Refuge?

I came to the United States to do my graduate studies at New Mexico State. By the time I’d finished, I was deeply in love with the wide-open spaces of the Southwest. My interest in the Arctic started then, when I was looking for a way to combine my love of the outdoors with my life-long interest in painting.

I’d read a lot about the Arctic and was intrigued by the wildlife there, particularly polar bears. I first went to Churchill, Canada, which is a sub-arctic tourist spot for viewing and photographing polar bears. But I was disappointed. The bears were in this defined area, with these huge vehicles driving tourists around to see them. I decided that what I really wanted was to go to a wild place and actually live with polar bears.

I began communicating with biologists, who sent me reports about the Arctic Refuge. I learned about the biodiversity up there and started to dream that I could do a project of this magnitude. With help from friends and others, that’s how this project became a reality.

You were up there for fourteen months during the coldest times. Tell us about the conditions.

Well, I traveled with my guide and friend, Robert Thompson, an Inupiat from Katovik. We lived in a tent designed for Arctic winter and used a small Coleman stove to cook with inside the tent. The temperature would drop to -40°F, with the wind blowing sometimes at 60 mph. The windchill could bring the temperature down to -100°F or colder. But we survived because Robert has lived there for 30 years and knows the land and all its elements. I trusted him completely, taking just one baby step at a time until I learned to live and work in that Arctic icebox.

The time I spent in the Refuge just astonished me. I saw the most amazing diversity of wildlife. Even the in the depths of subzero winter there’s so much life—polar bears, muskox, caribou, moose, Dall sheep and a tremendous diversity of birds. One discovery that truly amazed me was a tiny bird called the American dipper. The American dipper lives in the Refuge year around, but it needs access to open water to feed—which it finds even in temperatures of -50°F! That is what completely blew my mind—that such a variety of life is possible in such a harsh environment.

Commercializing the Arctic Refuge for oil is a major political issue right now. But why should anyone in New York or Los Angeles or any American care about the Arctic Refuge? What’s the big deal?

There are many big deals. There are the birds, for example, that come from all fifty U.S. states to nest and rear their young. Secondly, it is truly America’s last wild place and Americans do care about preserving designated wild places—the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, for example. These places inspire us all and, fortunately, Americans care about them and about handing them down unspoiled to future generations.

Some people feel that environmentalist’s are constantly crying wolf when, in reality, development can coexist with nature. It’s been done with the Alaskan pipeline hasn’t it?

If you look at Prudhoe Bay and other developments in Alaska, you see that there are 400 big and small oil spills each year. Those spills affect the tundra, the birds, and the whole habitat. So, really, oil and wilderness have not successfully coexisted. At Prudhoe Bay, the pipeline itself has disturbed the wildlife. It has caused the central Arctic caribou herd to shift their calving ground. Inside the Refuge, those kinds of disturbances would be greatly magnified. This is because inside the Refuge the porcupine caribou herd is nearly five times larger than the central Arctic herd, yet the land area is nearly five times narrower.

The polar bear favors the coastal plain to den because of the special snow and wind conditions there that form drifts earlier in the season than in other places in the Alaskan Arctic. Birds have very specific nesting requirements in many microclimates on the coastal plain. Where would they go if drilling takes over this area? It’s a very narrow strip of land—there’s no place for them to move to. The whole strip would be turned into an industrial site.

Oil and wilderness cannot co-exist—they are fundamentally incompatible. A recent study by the National Research Council has found that 30 years of drilling on Alaska’s North Slope has had significant harmful effects on wildlife that will last for generations.

The current administration, which is pressing hard to drill oil in the Arctic Refuge, claims that new technologies will make the impact of drilling negligible.

While it’s true that oil technology has improved, impact on the land would still not be minimal. The new platforms have a smaller footprint, but you still have to build the pipeline; you still have to put in roads; you still have to build gravel mines, airports, and helicopter pads.

Research done by the United States Geological Survey has shown that unlike at Prudhoe Bay, where the oil lies in huge pools, oil within the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is in small pockets in a complex geologic formation. So we’re talking about creating a large network of roads, bridges, and pipelines that would literally take over the whole land. Why would we be willing to do that when 95 percent of Alaska’s North Slope is already open for oil exploration?

Are you saying that there are other places up there that still can be drilled, without touching the Arctic Refuge?

That is absolutely true. West of the Refuge, Congress has already approved oil exploration and started leasing the land. There’s a vast national petroleum reserve there on the North Slope of Alaska that is open for development.

Why would we despoil one of the wildest places on our planet just for a six-month supply of oil?

Some people would say that with the war in Iraq, we’re going to need that six months worth of oil.

Well, it’s not a war-time issue because it would take 10 years of development before oil from the Arctic Refuge could reach U.S. gas stations.


Still, the administration is warning that the world is a dangerous place and we can’t rely on foreign sources of oil anymore.

Fortunately, the public isn’t saying that. At the end of January, a poll showed that 62 percent of Americans do not support drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Only 30 percent of those polled supported drilling there. The American public believes this place is so valuable that it should be preserved for their children and grandchildren.

Polls aside, President Bush has a Republican majority in both chambers of Congress. Aren’t you fighting a losing battle?

I don’t think so. In March (2003), the Senate defeated the president’s attempt to add oil drilling in the Refuge to the national budget proposal. Several Republican senators made a strong pledge that they would not allow oil drilling in the Refuge. The battle is definitely not lost.

However, it’s important that the American public understands what is at stake. That is what I’m hoping to provide with my book—the knowledge that there is a tremendous biodiversity in the Arctic Refuge and that the indigenous cultures have depended on that delicate ecosystem for over 10,000 years. Again, the question I want people to ask themselves is, “Why would we be willing to destroy all of that for just a small supply of oil?”. It would be so much better to take the effort and dollars that would go into oil exploration and, instead, invest them in developing renewable resources.

Who are the indigenous people living in the Artic Refuge?

There are two unique indigenous cultures, the Inupiat Eskimos and the Gwich’in Athabascan Indians. They live in two villages—one on the north coast of the Refuge, Kaktovik, where 280 Inupiats live and one on the south side, Arctic Village, where about 150 Gwich’in people reside.

How do they sustain themselves?

Mostly it’s a subsistence living. The Gwich’in people depend on the porcupine caribou and other wildlife for food, clothing, tools and cultural identity. The Inupiat people depend on the bowhead whale, primarily, which they hunt in the Fall. They also hunt caribou and Dall sheep.

Before you went to the Refuge, was your goal to protect it or was that a result of your experiences up there?

When I was planning for the project in 2000, the goal was to do an extensive documentation of the place. But in 2001, with the current administration taking office, advocating against opening the Refuge to oil drilling became the priority.

How does it feel to be suddenly thrown into the political battle for the Arctic Refuge?

The thing is, throughout the course of my project, I have made several trips to Washington D.C. The book is an extension of what I have already been doing because I fell in love with the place and want to tell others about it. Before the book came out, members of both the House and Senate had used my images in Congressional debates over this issue. The book is essentially the collection of my work that I can share with the public and our elected officials in a way I hope will encourage them to care about preserving this amazing wild place

This must have been a very expensive project to fund. How much did it cost and who paid for it? Was it the taxpayer?

Working in the Arctic is never inexpensive. I was able to receive support from the Alaska Wilderness League, the Blue Earth Alliance, the Mountaineers Foundation and from my friends, as well as others. Also, I devoted my entire life savings to the project and went deeply into debt. So a combination of sources helped to make the project happen. All told, I spent more than a quarter million dollars over a period of two years

If you were able to have a private conversation with President Bush, what would you say to him?

I would invite the President to come up to the Refuge with me to experience the grand wildlife spectacle for himself. That way he would truly understand what is at stake.

-- Subhankar Banerjee is the author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and land, Braided River, 2003

 
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