The burnt-orange sun had dropped to the northwest horizon of the distant mountain tops, a futile attempt at the setting that wouldn't come, at least not on this night.
Five of us sat in camp chairs around the make-believe fire we wished was real. There is little in the way of firewood on the north slopes of the eastern Brooks Range, so we pretended.
We shared a love of hunting and the outdoors, but our presence had no purpose beyond just being there. A love affair with the country had brought us there for the summer solstice. While we shared stories from our lives, we kept track of the Dall ram bedded on a steep granite face south of camp. The grizzly bear on a slope to the west enlarged his excavation of the mountain, determined to have the ground squirrel below for supper.
Our camp was deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Seventy miles to the north, on the Arctic coastal plain, was the area that would, after many years of opposition, open to oil and gas exploration.
Our conversation drifted north. The concerns we all seemed to share were not associated with the ecological disaster predicted by environmentalists. Our experience with the oil and gas industry in Alaska evidences, when one considers the magnitude of arctic resource development, a rather remarkable lack of tragedy. The Exxon Valdez spill is the exception, and it had nothing to do with exploration.
Our concerns were more about what comes after exploration. Would the opening of ANWR to drilling in a small area lead to additional encroachments into the refuge? Would it lead to roads in the mountains surrounding us?
When the grizzly bear had either caught his supper or given up and wandered over the top of the mountain, we called it a night, agreeing we would prefer that ANWR was just left alone.
Sleep for me was fitful and I got up after a couple of hours, made coffee and settled outside in a camp chair. I looked up and as if for the first time, I saw the two airplanes that had brought us there, sitting on the tundra. Sitting next to them was a plastic cooler with a 24-pack of bottled water. Next to the water there were six bottles of propane. Our tents were made of various light-weight synthetic fibers. Everything in sight had a direct relationship with fossil fuel.
The surrounding silence guided my thoughts. For most of my life I had been pro-development. My love of the outdoors has never wavered and I had concerns, but the economics of natural resource development had always been the blood of life for me and most everyone I know.
My life in Alaska began in the early stages of oil discovery, when we still paid state income taxes and there was no Permanent Fund. The timber industry was still viable, there was coal mining, gold mining, commercial fishing and enough oil to keep things going. Then came Prudhoe Bay and the pipeline and things got pretty good for Alaskans.
The mid-1980s brought a downturn in oil prices and production. Things looked bleak for Alaskans. A common sight was a bumper sticker that said, "Lord please give us one more oil boom, we promise not to @$%^ it away." We got our wish and broke the promise in epic fashion and now we're in trouble.
In reflecting on the life I've built in Alaska, and it is a good life, much of it is because of the opportunities natural-resource development has provided. Alaska's success didn't come from folks sitting in an office staring at a computer screen. It came from people working on the ground, with their hands. The fruits of their labors translates into those detached jobs that perhaps insulate folks from the realities of life. Some might say the tourism industry will save Alaska in an environmentally sound way. It won't, and that industry is as exploitive of natural resources as any if you look below the surface.
Having struggled with this for a long time, the answer to my torment isn't pretty. My objection to the exploration of ANWR comes from the selfish perspective of "I got mine and I don't care if you get yours." I am not a young person struggling to put milk and cereal on the table for my children. I don't have to dream about having a nice place to live or a decent vehicle to drive, or being able to afford to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I have those things.
In a perfect world, there would be no need to develop ANWR or any of the other semi-wild places targeted for such things. But the demand for energy and mineral resources is ever-growing. While we argue the merits of it all, and lament the lack of alternate energy sources, we do little to curtail that demand.
Fossil fuel is sort of like buying meat at the store: it's easy to forget where it comes from. Walking through the aisles of plastic that pass for consumer goods on your way to pick up those organic vegetables, most of us never consider that it took resources mined from the earth to make most of it, and it didn't arrive by horse-drawn cart. We all share the responsibility.
After a hard look in the mirror, and finding the cold stare of hypocrisy looking back, I cannot reasonably object to drilling in ANWR. Alaska is dying on the vine. People are leaving, which is fine with me, but it evidences the difficulties we face. Alaskans don't want to lose their Permanent Fund dividend or pay taxes. Perhaps some don't understand those privileges come from oil and gas production.
My hope is all involved will come together to go forward in the sound ecological manner that we know is possible, and use the resources that would otherwise go to law firms to develop alternatives to the way we do business.
Perhaps it will force the realization that every environmental issue facing the world can be traced to the ever-multiplying, ever-demanding, human biomass that has subverted the natural-selection process and is consuming the planet to death.
Steve Meyer of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.