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Billions! Billions!

And so, once more, the ravenous, the vain, and the simple-minded howl at the gates.

We learn, to our great surprise, that Trump and his lickspittles have their eyes on the Arctic. [i] But of course! There are billions to be made there! Billions! Why not! What other measure of ambition is there! Sure, the 10,000-year-long migration of the Porcupine caribou herd will be--well, let's get this out of the way: ENDED! But life goes on, sucker, because there are billions to be made! Billions! The annual migration of the herd to what the Inuvialuit people of northwest Canada call ivvavik, "a place for giving birth to and raising young," a two-thousand mile round-trip journey, the longest migration of any land animal on earth--gone! But BILLIONS! Get your heads around that, people!

At the time of an earlier threat (but is there any other time), I wrote a book about the Arctic, and the threats, and the caribou. Late in March, with my friends David Hertz and Shaun Griffin, I snowmobiled 40 miles into Yukon's Ogilvie Mountains to see portions of the herd on their winter range. Two months later, with Shaun and the distinguished photographer Toru Sonohara (who shot the above photo), I watched migrating caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"Those were the last caribou I would see on my travels," I wrote in my book, Arctic Circle:

I think about them often, especially when I read about yet another proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Range to oil and gas development, on the very spot where many of the animals that I saw that day would bear their young, two months and many miles later. The common denominator of all such schemes, it seems to me, is their vulgarity. Oil development on Alaska’s coastal plain is roughly analogous to public defecation at Ground Zero in New York City. It is crude, it is profane, and it is profoundly ignorant of history.

That should be bad enough. But no: undeterred, many advocates of development cheerfully take on the added habit of duplicity, dismissing as worthless and expendable lands in which they themselves have no personal interest, at the same time extolling as heaven on earth lands that they do. Ronald Reagan was the first President to commend oil and gas leasing for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now hear Mister Reagan a few months before taking office on why he intended to maintain the land on his 688-acre California ranch in its untamed, natural state: “Everybody has his own Shangri-La, his own way of getting away, and this is ours.” No one would have blamed Mister Reagan for opposing oil exploration on his beloved ranch, were oil to have been discovered there. And no one would blame Vice-President Dick Cheney--a prime mover behind efforts to open the refuge to drilling--for opposing oil exploration and development on the Snake River, one of his beloved Wyoming fishing holes. Cheney grew up in Wyoming and has fished its streams avidly since he was a kid. “I love the setting where you get to do it,” he told Outdoorsbest online magazine.

Fishing takes you to some of the most beautiful places in the world in terms of setting. But I have just as much fun with a day on the Snake an hour from the house, and I take just as much satisfaction from it. I’ve always firmly believed in the old saying that a day spent fishing is a day that doesn’t count against your total time in life.

Nor would President George W. Bush’s first Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, another prime mover, be faulted for opposing oil and gas development in some cherished corner of her home state of Colorado, where, whenever possible, she repairs to hike and ski. As she told Outside magazine, explaining the source of her affection for such places: "Growing up in Denver, I'm sure it started with loving the Colorado mountains."

Years ago, my father, who was an Episcopal priest, told a story in one of his sermons that I’m reminded of when I picture roads, drilling pads, and airstrips on the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. I was probably eight or ten at the time, and not in the habit of listening closely to my father’s sermons. Yet so powerful was the message of his story that I heard it clearly on that long-ago Sunday morning, and I’ve never forgotten it. It seems that an old monk was showing a group of American tourists around a great European cathedral. At the end of the tour the group came to a side chapel, where a candle was burning. The monk explained that it had long been one of the duties of his order to tend the flame.

“How long has it been burning?” someone asked.

The monk smiled. “A thousand years,” he said.

There was a gasp from the assembled, and then silence. Then, while the others watched, one of the tourists walked over to the candle and cupped the flame in his hand.

“A thousand years,” he said. “That’s long enough.” With that he blew out the flame.

Will that be the headline when the calving grounds are opened to drilling? Officials say, That’s long enough!

But perhaps the story of the thousand-year flame was apocryphal. Never mind: other flames far longer-lived than that one are routinely extinguished, and of that there can be no doubt. Mayan ruins are looted, cave paintings defaced, antiquities destroyed. During the early days of the Iraq War, Baghdad’s National Museum was pillaged, resulting in the destruction or disappearance of priceless artifacts 4000 years of age and older. Such atrocities are not confined to foreign lands. In 1964 a geology student studying ice age glaciation on Nevada’s Wheeler Peak set about collecting tree-ring data from some of the bristlecone pine trees on the mountain. Bristlecones are known to be very old, and the student theorized that knowledge of their ages might assist him in dating contemporaneous glacial phenomena. He chose a tree known as WPN-114, which grew at an altitude of 10,750 feet in a glacial cirque on the northeast face of the mountain. The student made several holes in the tree with a 28-inch increment borer, an instrument that would have allowed him to take a sample of the core without harming the tree.

Unfortunately, he was unable to get a clear reading with the borer. His only other option was to examine a cross-section of the trunk under a microscope. With that in mind, he asked for permission from the U.S. Forest Service to cut down the tree.

Permission was granted. With the help of Forest Service personnel, the student chain-sawed the bristlecone. Subsequent counting of its rings established that the tree was about 4900 years old. That made it, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the oldest living thing on earth.

WPN-114 was very old, it is true, and its downing was a tragedy. But it was not the oldest living thing on earth. Not by a long shot. Terns have been migrating between the Arctic and the Antarctic since long before WPN-114 took root on the bleak northeast slope of Wheeler Peak. Fin whales have cycled between Antarctica and the coast of South Africa, monarch butterflies have plied the airways between California and northwest Mexico, for just as long. The Porcupine caribou herd has staged an endless journey over mountain and river, from Yukon’s Ogilvie Mountains to Alaska’s north coast and return, for at least ten thousand years; there is evidence that the true time span may be many times that number. The Porcupine’s grand journey began in the unfathomable mists of prehistory, in a nursery of ice. It grew and prospered during fat times and waned during lean, engendering a unique narrative as surely as does a people or a nation. The chronicle of the Porcupine lives and breathes today where it has always lived and breathed, in a vital, enchanting corner of the world. Who now claims the authority to snuff it out? [ii]

* * *


[ii] Arctic Circle, 2010, David Godine, Publisher, pp. 164-167

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