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I knew that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was big, but I didn’t really comprehend how big until we flew into it. For miles on end, we passed over one mountain, broad valley, and watershed after another. Such an expanse of untouched wilderness was inspiring, humbling, and breathtaking all at once.

It’s not called a wildlife refuge for nothing, either. Animals from shrews to grizzlies call the refuge home. Every year, more than 160,000 porcupine caribou migrate 1,500 miles to their calving grounds on the coastal plain by the Arctic Ocean. That’s like walking from Boston to Miami.

I wondered whether we would see the herd, but not for long. There must have been a thousand caribou in the grassy valley where our plane set us down. After exploring the valley under the midnight sun, we spent the rest of the week rafting down the Aichilik River to the coastal plain, winding up at the shore of the Arctic.

Along the way, we saw wilderness at its wildest, with the Brooks Range looming and golden eagles, tundra swans, long-tailed jaegers, and even snowy owls watching from above. Just like the caribou, though, we were making another kind of journey: from the part of the refuge that is safe from oil and gas drilling to the part that is not.

The coastal plain where the caribou give birth to their calves each year has an odd name: the 10-02 Area. When the Arctic Refuge was expanded in 1980 as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, proponents of oil and gas drilling insisted on adding a section (10-02) to the bill that mandated an inventory of potential oil and gas resources. How much oil is there? No one knows for sure, other than that it’s not enough to affect global market prices.

Undoubtedly, it would have a devastating effect on the caribou and other wildlife.

During the past four decades, we’ve come close to losing the fight to keep oil companies from invading the coastal plain many times. Somehow, though, we’ve always managed to keep the drills at bay—and by “we,” I mean the millions of Americans who’ve signed petitions, contacted their representatives, and otherwise played a part in, first, creating the Arctic Refuge and, then, in making sure that the oil companies stayed out. When at last we reached the Arctic, waves lapped at the shore, with only a few small isolated icebergs offshore—a reminder that the climate in Alaska is warming more rapidly than anywhere else in North America. A decade ago, the sea ice would definitely have extended all the way to the shore.

Our visit to the Arctic Refuge ended at the Inupiat village of Kaktovik. None of the local people I talked to were in favor of drilling, either offshore or on the coastal plain. Their main concern was to ensure they would continue to be able to do subsistence hunting to provide for themselves.

None wanted the oil industry to move into the refuge. If that ever were to happen, we don’t have to wonder what it would look like. West of the Arctic Refuge lies the largest oil field in North America—a sprawling complex of oil wells, gravel roads, air strips, gravel pads, and equipment-storage sites that covers an area the size of Rhode Island.

And where there is oil, there are oil spills. The largest was in 2006, when a corroded BP oil pipeline leaked about 267,000 gallons. Could that happen in the Arctic Refuge? Yes, as long as there’s still money to be made from selling oil and as long as the status of the coastal plain remains in limbo.

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