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Sunday, May 12, 2002

Oil drilling in Alaska
raises familiar questions

THE DEBATE about whether to allow oil drilling in the 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge seems as remote from Hawaii as a squabble over mineral rights on the dark side of the moon.

Yet, the questions Alaskans face are the same as those we've faced in Hawaii since humans arrived. We're still facing them, although some would say the battle here has been fought and lost, perhaps as early as 1790 when the sandalwood trade began under Kamehameha I.

Sandalwood, a type of cedar, is prized for its aroma. Between 1810 and 1824, trade in the precious commodity peaked. By 1839, when the first forestry law was enacted to regulate harvesting of the trees, which take as long as 100 years to mature, they were virtually gone.

Kamehameha traded sandalwood for the ships, guns and money he needed to establish the Hawaiian monarchy. Most of it was exported to China, where Buddhist temples were built with it. A Chinese name for Hawaii is Danzan, which means "Sandalwood Mountain."

While sandalwood was still available, Hawaiian chiefs sent subjects into those mountains for months at a time to cut the trees and haul them down to the ports. Traditional conservation practices were abandoned, as was the woodcutters' traditional lifestyle.

IN ALASKA, 200 years later, the situation is similar. About 10,000 indigenous people continue to rely on an estimated 120,000 animals that make up the Porcupine Caribou herd, which roams Alaska and Canada. Each year, these creatures migrate to calving grounds, which happen to be on the same oil-rich coastal plain that comprises the ANWR.

Oil companies maintain that drilling needn't harm the caribou. The herd in Prudhoe Bay grew to more than five times the size it was when the area was opened to drilling in 1968, they say. Environmentalists counter that the herd in that area is smaller, doesn't migrate and enjoys a larger habitat than the one that uses the ANWR calving ground.

The oilmen argue new drilling techniques would mean that the environmental impact on the ANWR would be far less than at Prudhoe and they'd need only 2,000 acres. Anti-drillers say that figure doesn't include the network of roads and pipelines.

While environmentalists and oil companies argue about the impact of drilling on the caribou, polls show three out of four Alaskans favor it. What's at stake is billions of dollars in federal and state taxes that could postpone imposing an individual state income tax indefinitely.

INDIGENOUS people are split on the issue. While the Gwich'in Nation, for example, which relies on the caribou for food, opposes the drilling and wants to protect the ANWR from development forever, the Inupiat who live on Barter Island a mile off the coast favor it.

The Inupiat have surface rights to some of the land above the oil deposits and could enjoy a new income stream if ANWR drilling were approved. That's important because their Prudhoe Bay oil revenues are in decline.

Tax revenue from Prudhoe Bay oil softened life for the Inupiat who traditionally relied on hunting and fishing. Instead of using almost every waking hour laboring to survive, Inupiats now enjoy oil heat, grocery stores, roads usable year-round, schools, plumbing, electricity and cable television.

The Inupiats have an airport and access to the larger world. They don't want to go back to the Stone Age.

The Gwich'in people don't have much use for money, except to buy the snowmobiles, gasoline, hiking boots and camouflage outfits they wear these days to hunt the caribou. Even for them, once things start to change there's no going back.

As it did for Kamehameha the Great, the question comes down to money and the opportunities it can provide vs. living in tune with an unspoiled natural world.

There's no easy answer, but who gets to decide?

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
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