Mon, Feb

Wondrously Blank: A Plea for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- A Guest Commentary

The world would be far poorer, Aldo Leopold famously observed, “without a blank spot on the map.” Yet it wasn’t long ago that U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski from Alaska stood in the Senate chamber and declared indignantly that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was no more remarkable than a blank piece of paper.

The world would be far poorer, Aldo Leopold famously observed, “without a blank spot on the map.” Yet it wasn’t long ago that U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski from Alaska stood in the Senate chamber and declared indignantly that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was no more remarkable than a blank piece of paper.

What, really, is a blank spot on the map? What is its value? These questions are difficult to answer -- especially for a money-driven, mechanized society such as ours.

A blank spot, despite its lack of attention from mapmakers, is not empty. While it is devoid of cities, villages, roads, and monuments (as well as drill rigs, trash heaps, billboards, and wrecked vehicles) -- it may be full of other attractions. Such as scenic wonder. Or silence. Or wildlife in grand abundance.

And something else, as well. A blank spot on the map often contains precious opportunities for people to explore their outer world -- and their inner selves. For a blank spot implies no limits. It is a place of endless reach -- for the sunlit horizon, as well as for the human spirit.

No place on our planet is more richly, wondrously blank than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Within its nearly twenty million acres of terrain lies the last stretch of protected coastline in Alaska, as well as the coastal plain -- the fragile tundra wetland that is America’s premier birthing ground for arctic wildlife. Caribou migrate over 1,000 miles round trip every year to reach this place; migratory birds from every corner of the country seek refuge here.


This is the place that George Bush, Dick Cheney, and their supporters in the energy industry want to invade and cover with roads, drilling pads, and heavy machinery. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that the basic reasoning is entirely spurious: Even the most aggressive estimates of the oil that might be recovered from the Refuge total far less than one percent of America’s needs. That’s the equivalent of a few months’ worth of our nation’s oil demands. And the most optimistic predictions say that none of this oil would actually reach the market for a decade.

This debate over one of the most pristine places on Earth is only a microcosm of the Bush administration’s short-sighted and intellectually bankrupt energy policy. Bush and his team have adamantly refused to do anything that might improve energy conservation in America. They have stonewalled every attempt to gain increased mileage from Detroit’s car manufacturers. And they have rejected all suggestions that we should make a top national priority the development of renewable energy sources.

And yet they want to risk destroying one of our country’s last truly wild places, a priceless piece of our national heritage, for the possibility of a tiny increment of oil. Go figure.

The administration claims that the risk is actually minimal, that the development would be contained in a tiny area and could not possibly affect wildlife migrations and the fragile tundra landscape. Reality and experience prove otherwise. All anyone needs to do is to observe the wreckage-strewn development nearby, off Prudhoe Bay -- a morass of waste ponds, dumps, rusting machinery and rutted roads. Besides, who is this administration kidding? They, like their energy industry allies, know the truth -- that once the gates to this sanctuary are opened, its irreplaceable qualities will be lost forever. Future generations of Americans will never even have the choice of experiencing this wondrous place.

Unfortunately for the administration, the American public also knows the truth. That is why, backed by the Republican leadership in Congress, they have given up trying to pass Arctic drilling legislation directly. Instead, they have opted for a bit of legislative subterfuge: By burying an Arctic drilling provision deep within the federal budget, they can avoid any filibuster and eliminate any up-or-down debate on this particular issue. Such debate, they have concluded, would be both messy and unpopular. So within the next few weeks, they will attempt to sneak through Arctic drilling as part of the overall budget resolution.

Where is the call for America to use its vaunted ingenuity and economic muscle to de-hook itself forever from oil? Where is the leadership to create a national mission to solve this problem through energy conservation and alternative fuels -- to inspire an effort of man-on-the-moon proportions? Where is the wisdom to see that our nation’s continuing dependence on oil helps us fund the very same radical militants in the Middle East who are bent on terrorizing our people?Nowhere.

If Bush and Company succeeds in drilling up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they will fill in that place on the map, darken one of our brightest natural wonders. With the inevitable oil spills on the tundra. With the bodies of dead caribou calves. And, worst of all, with the shadows of a lost opportunity to protect a place that is truly sacred -- and wondrously blank.


T. A. Barron grew up in Colorado ranch country, traveled widely as a Rhodes Scholar, managed a successful venture capital business in New York, and then changed careers to become a full-time writer and conservationist. His passion for the wonders of nature, and his belief in the heroic potential of every person, radiate through his books, many of which are international bestsellers. His award-wining novels, read by children and adults alike, include: his new trilogy The Great Tree of Avalon (a New York Times bestseller); The Lost Years of Merlin (currently being developed into a feature film); and The Ancient One (the story of a brave teenage girl and a great redwood tree). He has also authored children”šs books such as High as a Hawk, and photo-essay books about Colorado wilderness. His non-fiction book, The Hero”šs Trail, describes how every person can help our planet, and expands on his experiences creating the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. Tom also devotes significant time to education and conservation causes; speaking widely; serving on the boards of Princeton University and The Wilderness Society; and writing articles on the environment, creativity, and heroism for publications as varied as The New York Times, Family Circle, School Library Journal, and High Country News. His favorite pastime, though, is hiking on mountain trails with his wife, Currie, and their children. Visit his website at www.tabarron.com.