Nature of Progress

Discussion in 'Writing' started by JoRingo, Dec 14, 2003.

  1. JoRingo

    JoRingo Guest

    The Nature of Progress

    When you fly over America you will not only see beautifully lit cities and towns, highways streaming with traffic, and towering skyscrapers; you will also see millions of acres of wilderness. Man inhabits only a small percentage of the world’s land mass, and that is also true here in America.
    We all understand that at one time our great nation’s cities and towns were simply wilderness with possibilities. Animals do to alter their environment to some degree with their digging and building, but generally they exist in harmony with nature; with the purpose of survival. Unlike animals, the nature of man is to see the possibilities and seriously alter his environment so that he may not only survive, but thrive. Whether a culture becomes technologically sophisticated, or remains a band of hunters and gatherers, man will live off of the land’s resources and alter his environment.
    The protection of America’s environment, and its wildlife, is as important to our future as it is a link to our past. Realizing the rapid expanse of America’s developing cities, towns, and highways, some American presidents have set aside and protected millions of acres from future development.
    In 1960, President Eisenhower set aside a substantial part of northeastern Alaska, to be known as the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. When Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, they doubled the size of ANWR to just over 19 million acres, changed it from a “Reserve” to a “Refuge”, and “expanded its purposes to include conservation of natural diversity, supporting subsistence uses, maintaining international treaty obligations, and preserving water quality and quantity”.
    As part of that expansion, Section 1002 of the ANILCA protected an additional 1.5 million acres, along the northeastern coast and the boarder with Canada, in what is now known as the 1002 area, or Coastal Plain of Alaska. At the same time the ANILCA also recognized the area’s potential petroleum reserves and “authorized a study of the oil and gas potential within the plain”(CNN). The debate over whether or not to drill has been going on every since.
    The side that opposes drilling in the 1002 area will argue that there may not be enough oil. Others, like Roger Herrera of Arctic Power, argue that if we don’t drill “we’ll be importing so much oil that we will go bankrupt in this country”. Both sides choose the most extreme ends of the statistical data available. They try to find scientists who will support their arguments, and naturally they only use the data that proves them right. Both sides fail to see, or at least fail to mention, what should be a fundamental understanding. Man’s development of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, lumber, and coal is every bit as natural to man as eating grass and migrating is to the caribou. Man can exist by hunting and fishing. Man can survive by using animal skins for shelter. Man’s mind was meant for more than that. Man’s nature is progress.
    Kaktovik, a village located on Barter Island just off the coast of the 1002 area, is home to the Inupiat Eskimo. They have lived as subsistence hunters for thousands of years, but just in the last thirty they have seen unprecedented economic growth in the state of Alaska. With that growth they see the possibility of a better life for them and their future generations. The Inupiat own shares in the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Their shares in the corporation result from native-rights settlements with oil companies. Arctic Slope Regional, as well as the Inupiat, would benefit from both the wealth created by the oil companies and the jobs that further oil exploration and development would bring. The mayor of Kaktovik, Lon Sonsalla, understands that the Inupiat Eskimos support oil exploration, but he claims they are on a “wait-and-see basis”.
    What have they seen while they’ve been waiting? They have seen the average household income in Alaska climb to the highest levels in the nation. Incomes have doubled to an average of $48,000 a year in just the past 20 years. Alaska doesn’t need to collect taxes from its citizens. Instead the state pays them an average of $2,000 per person, per year. John Mitchell, writer for National Geographic, was in Kaktovik and said, “I can see that the village has grown some since I was last there in 1987. There is some new housing. I understand a sewage system will soon replace the heave-ho honey buckets.” The oil in Alaska has allowed the state to provide a better environment for its people by putting billions of dollars into infrastructure. John Mitchell also wrote about the town of Barrow, along the northwestern coast of Alaska:

    “I never got to see the old Barrow, before the oil came in the ‘70’s. Then it was said to be the nation’s dreariest rural slum. Today, thanks to oil, it just might be the richest little community in America.”

    Brenda Itta-Lee does remember the old Barrow. She was born there in 1943. Her family had no electricity, no telephone, and no running water. To survive the brutal winters they burned coal and whale blubber. She said, “It was a very hard life until the oil economy entered our culture in the 1970’s”. Now her children, and their children, will be able to enjoy luxuries that many of us have found to be necessities.
    All of these advancements, introduced into an otherwise wilderness lifestyle, cause some to believe that nature is being spoiled. It is just the opposite. Nature is taking its course. Animals and wilderness will change very little over millions of years, but there is no reason to expect the lives of human beings to remain as they were even one hundred years ago. As man creates advanced machines through technology, he also creates advanced opportunities for better lives. This advancement should be viewed as more natural to man than subsistence lifestyles. It is quite possible, and should be considered relevant, that no oil well has ever killed and skinned three thousand caribou in a single year, and no team of hunters has ever provided jobs for thousands of people.
    Some of those who live near the 1002 area are opposed to drilling. They wish to maintain their wilderness lifestyles with minimal human comforts and survive from subsistence hunting. The Gwich’in people strongly oppose any oil development in the Coastal Plain. Sarah James, spokesperson for the Gwich’in Indians and their Steering Committee, says that seventeen Gwich’in villages do not want to see oil development. They gave up any rights they had to oil money by opting out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. By doing so they were able to maintain control over nearly two-million acres known as the Venetie Indian Reservation. It boarders the southern section of the Arctic Refuge where the Inupiat live.
    The Gwich’in people fear possible consequences of human developments and they have every right to refuse any benefits that result. George Ahmaogak, the mayor of the North Slope Borough, said, “That’s the way they wanted it to be so they could have their own little quarters and take care of their own little selves. Well, that doesn’t mean they have any right to dictate what happens outside their boundaries now”.
    Some will argue that oil exploration and drilling will, to some degree, dictate what happens outside of the 1002 boundaries. If oil developments were the ruin of the caribou herds, that the Gwich’in Indians depend on, then that would be a sound argument. The facts prove otherwise. Caribou populations have increased and The Alaska Wilderness League, that helps to fight against oil developments, states that the “caribou numbers in the Central Arctic Herd have increased over the past thirty years, as have populations throughout the Arctic during this period”. These increases have occurred despite the fact that between two and four thousand caribou are killed each year by subsistence hunting. In addition hunters come to Alaska from all over the world to hunt the caribou resulting in the death of 22,000 each year. Eagles, wolves, grizzly bears and starvation in the harsh winters could just as well be factors that contribute to a dwindling population, yet the population increases. Is this the sign of a thriving population? Could it be that there are too many caribou?
    Some who oppose development of the 1002 area point to problems caused by both existing wells and by any future wells. One claim is that the trend toward increasing caribou population actually masks changes to the caribou’s habitat and to their reproductive successes. Since the number of caribou is increasing that must mean that these “reproductive successes” must not be measured by the number of births, but by the location of births.
    Patrick Valkenburg, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said “caribou inhabiting the oilfields had lower calf productivity compared with others”. This statistic proves two other things. It proves that caribou do inhabit areas with oilfields, and it proves that they do have some level of calf productivity in those areas. If the calving rate is less around an oilfield, yet the population is increasing, that must then point to the fact that calving rates in other locations have increased. It is their nature to adapt and their instinct to survive. Mr. Valkenburg supports this when he writes about the effects to the caribou around a long existing oil well in the Prudhoe Bay area:
    “Although there was some displacement of caribou calving in the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, in general, caribou have not been adversely affected by human activities in Alaska. Pipelines and most other developments are built to allow for caribou movements, and caribou have shown us that they can adapt to the presence of people and machines.”

    Another claim is that oil development in the 1002 area will leave the caribou no alternative habitat for calving. If true, this would seem to suggest that no caribou ever lived or calved in what is now the Prudhoe Bay area. If the caribou did in fact inhabit that area, and the development caused them to find alternatives, then the argument is invalid.
    Pollution is a valid concern without question. Existing laws and multi-million dollar fines are enforced on those companies that carelessly, or even accidentally, cause environmental harm. British Petroleum Inc. failed to report illegal dumping of hazardous waste and was fined $15.5 million. They also received five years probation and paid $6.5 million in civil penalties. This illegal dumping is hardly a reason to not allow drilling, but instead it is evidence of the legal safeguards that already exist.
    The Coastal Plain area (1002) is ardently defended because of the potential harm that may come to the animals as well as the environment. That begs the question; why is drilling allowed at hundreds of other sites? Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior, was more than willing to see drilling in other locations when he said, “You can go a thousand miles west from Prudhoe Bay. I’m ready to offer those leases right now”.
    Pam Miller of The Wilderness Society says that there are plenty of locations for drilling, but “for wilderness, we need this special place”. Is that because no caribou or other wildlife lives west of Prudhoe Bay? Could it be that those animals matter less? Almost 100% of the North Slope’s foothills and tundra are available to exploration and drilling. The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), located in northwestern Alaska, has British Petroleum, Phillips, and other oil companies with nearly 200 leases to drill. With all this development happening in other parts of Alaska one has to wonder why the state isn’t an environmental disaster.
    Another question might be; why do we need another location for drilling if we have so many others? Roger Herrera of Arctic Power points to the lack of success in many explored areas. Areas west of Prudhoe Bay, in the NPRA, have been drilled two hundred or more times since the 1940’s with little success. Much of the exploration and drilling that could seemingly take place will not because of economic reasons.
    According to David Houseknecht, of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the distance that needs to be traveled for recovery of oil is a big determining factor as to its value. Hundreds or thousands of miles traveled in the NPRA only means permanent gravel roads rather than temporary ice roads, steel platforms rather than temporary ice platforms, and increased travel costs. The proposed 1002 area is only 200 miles from the coast at its outermost points. This easier and less intrusive access to sites, as well as advancements in slant-drilling and seismic data collection, make the 1002 area much more economically and environmentally safe.
    We cannot conclude, with reason, that the oil developments that have come to Alaska in the past thirty years have created more negatives than positives for man. It would also be unreasonable to argue that oil platforms, and the infrastructures built around them, have had no effects on caribou. The fact that their population is increasing in the region should give one some idea as to their health. Maybe environmentalists who care so much for the animals, and oppose drilling, should ask themselves which method of human survival kills more animals; development of oil resources, or hunting?
    A reasonable argument is that the positive effects of man’s developments far outweigh the negatives for caribou and other wildlife. It would be unfortunate, for the Inupiat and others, if those who oppose drilling succeed in preventing further development. Whether it’s oil in Alaska or any number of resources and developments created by man, putting the welfare of animals as paramount is hardly a recipe for a progressive, intelligent, and healthy society. -JoRingo

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