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A Generational Stance on Behalf of the Arctic Ocean

Terry Tempest Williams

In less than a week, the Obama administration may well approve Shell Oil's plans to do exploratory drilling in America's Arctic Ocean. It would be an unmitigated disaster because there is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in the harshness of Arctic conditions. It should be stopped.

We must resist and insist that President Obama and Secretary Salazar deny this drilling permit to Shell Oil on two points: The Department of Interior has refused to issue an environmental impact statement to access the risks, impacts, and potential damages that Shell Oil's drilling plan might have on the fragile and complex ocean environment and its inhabitants. Instead, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has issued what is called a "Finding of No Significant Impact. This is a lie. 2) Shell Oil has not been able to produce a comprehensive strategy or plan of action, by their own admission, outlining their what they would do should an oil spill occur in Arctic waters.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar is quoted in The New York Times last week saying, "I believe there will not be an oil spill... If there is, I think the response capability is there to arrest the problem very quickly and minimize damage. If I were not confident that would happen, I would not let the permits go forward."

Mr. Secretary, I challenge you to tell that to the Cajun community in Louisiana or those residents from Orange Beach in Alabama, who are battling the health effects of Corexit, the dispersants sprayed near their homes as they try to recoup not only their lives but livelihoods unable to sell one-eyed shrimps and tainted oysters to a skeptical public.

We have heard this rhetoric before in the Gulf of Mexico and the fiords of Prince William Sound, from the mouths of BP and Exxon executives, alongside government officials. We have been led to believe this decision has been made, the outcome decided: Shell Oil will begin drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea. There is nothing we can do. We have been bullied into believing we as a nation must become energy independent or we will be at war. We are already at war and will continue to be at war because there is never enough for the insatiable greed of the oil and gas industry that exists as our government continues to privilege fossil fuels. This is a dying enterprise.

We have a history of environmental leadership in Alaska and we can call on that now. Nothing has been decided in the open space of democracy.

At what point do we, the American people, say enough? "No, Mr. President, you are not going to sink our future and the ongoing future of generations, both human and wild, for another obscene profit margin and corporate death vision that is killing us."

On her last night on Earth, Celia Hunter was on the phone from her log home in Fairbanks, Alaska, lobbying Senators to vote "no" on an upcoming bill that would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Friends say she died the next morning with her boots on. The date was Dec. 1, 2001. She was 82 years old.

Hunter's boots were not worn lightly; she was an on-the ground conservationist, a vocation that requires immoderate courage, a willingness to defend the soil on which you stand to the death, and an insouciant refusal to follow the rules. Hunter had those qualifications in spades.

Among the first women pilots in World War II, Hunter flew the most sophisticated fighter planes in the military. But men were the only pilots allowed to ferry planes up to Alaska. As an act of defiance and resistance, Hunter with her friend, Ginny Hill Wood, decided to fly a plane up north to see what all the fuss was about. They were the first women to fly across Alaska. Leaving from Seattle, it took them 27 days, navigating rugged terrain and wild weather, total flying time amounted to 30 hours with all the necessary stops. But they finally landed in Fairbanks on Jan. 1, 1947, where the temperature was 50 degrees below zero. Delighted and stranded, they never left.

In the 1950s, Hunter and Wood founded the Alaska Conservation Society to protect these wild lands. In 1960, with Margaret and Olaus Murie and a spirited group of friends, they launched a campaign that resulted in the creating the Arctic National Wildlife Range which would later become the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Two and a half decades later, the first woman to lead a national environmental organization would become president of The Wilderness Society. Her name: Celia Hunter. Sadly, before she left Washington, she burned all of her correspondence and notes. "I regret that decision looking back," she told me in a private conversation. "But that's how painful it had become for me to fight Washington's male-dominant machine of power. "

Hunter returned home to Alaska and continued protecting Alaska in on her own terms with integrity and passion. Her leadership sustained and supported President Jimmy Carter in setting aside 104 million acres for permanent protection under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

On an early fall day in 2001, Celia and I hiked a long, steep ridge near her beloved Camp Denali, a wilderness camp she and Ginny Wood and Ginny's husband, Woody, started in 1952 adjacent to the western boundary of Denali National Park.

"The remarkable thing about fighting for wild Alaska," Hunter told me, "is that it's been our experience that somehow in the last hour of the last minute through the decades of work we have been engaged in something breaks in the system that allows Alaska to remain Alaska. Call it magic or fate or divine intervention. Whether it is was the leadership of Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall or the conscience of Senator Dick Durbin or the Exxon Valdez oil spill on March 24, 1989, right before another critical vote before Congress, the long view has been protected." What she said next was as challenging as it is true, "Conservation is a generational stance."

This statement continues to haunt me and will not allow me to sleep. "Conservation is a generational stance."

Another view from history: In the 1960s, Project Chariot was a proposal on the table led by the entrepreneurial spirit of Edward Teller and members of the Atomic Energy Commission. Their vision was to detonate up to six nuclear bombs to blast a harbor thirty miles south of Port Hope, in northeast Alaska, in the Arctic Ocean. Again, the seduction, bullying and lure of energy development attempted to convince residents and native populations of the economic benefits without any studies of the effects of an atomic blast and radioactive fallout on the people and place. The seduction was almost complete.

Enter Hunter and Wood once again. A crucial biological report from the University of Alaska on the implications of Project Chariot, completed by Arctic scientist William O. Pruitt was banned for publication. His logic that the caribou's winter food is largely lichens, a simple plant, part algae and part fungus that receives its moisture and nutrients entirely from the air. Its spongy tissues soaks up rain "like blotting paper." The fallout that would be carried down by the rain would be absorbed by the lichen, eventually entering the stomachs of caribou and becoming part of their flesh which means entering the flesh of Eskimos who eat the caribou who eat the radiation-soaked lichen.

Pruitt couldn't get his report published anywhere. Not only that, he was fired by the University of Alaska. Politics. He went to his friends, finally seeking the help of the Alaska Conservation Society. They agreed to publish the bulletin themselves. Late at night, Hunter and Wood printed the Pruitt report in their newsletter, hand turning the wheel of their primitive little mimeograph machine with purple ink in their cabin and sending out the disturbing scientific findings to their mailing list of two hundred members.

Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall was on their mailing list. So was Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, as was Rachel Carson and her editor, Paul Brooks. Brooks wrote an article for Harper's Magazine exposing the dire situation. The bulletin was reprinted by the Sierra Club. Other wheels of power began to turn in Washington, D. C.

In time, Project Chariot was both exposed and stopped with the loudest and most urgent complaints coming from the Inupiaq villages themselves. They had the most at stake and the most to lose by Teller's self-serving and self-righteous vision. Upon further investigation, it was uncovered that the Atomic Energy Commission had secretly buried nuclear waste near native villages anyway surrounding Point Hope. The waste was already leaching into their aquifers causing health concerns among the native communities.

The question then and the question today remains the same: Who benefits?

Shell Oil will certainly be the beneficiary if the Obama administration goes ahead and grants them access to the Arctic Ocean. And certainly, the politicians believe they will benefit at election time. What these beneficiaries do not understand is that we all stand to lose and are with a warming climate caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Conservation is a generational stance. Where is our love and where is our outrage? What real advantage does President Obama gain in granting Shell Oil a free pass to drill in fragile, elegant waters three months before the election? There is no leadership here, there is only pandering to big oil once again with potentially catastrophic results to an already imperiled ecosystem threatened by ocean acidification, melting sea ice and overfishing.

Are we willing to take responsibility for oiled polar bears and suffocating bowhead whales trapped between the ice drowning in psychedelic swirls of an oil-stained sea? Does a narwhal count for nothing against the greed of another oil company hungry only for more profits, even against the rising tides of climate change?

At what point do we, the American people, say enough? "No, Mr. President, you are not going to sink our future and the ongoing future of generations, both human and wild, for another obscene profit margin and corporate death vision that is killing us."

No. Enough. Shell is history.

Secretary Salazar, what is the rush? Study the consequences with care before the consequences cannot be undone. There is no room for expediency in subzero temperatures and harrowing winds in the feeble, freezing hands of humans out to sea.

At another time when the Arctic was at risk, I wrote, "The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint... Wild mercy is in our hands."

It is time to put our boots on and rise to this moment as Celia Hunter did, as an engaged and loving community did, with a vision of Northern Lights shimmering above the horizon not burning oil.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is an American author, naturalist, and conservationist. Her work ranges from issues of ecology and wilderness preservation, to women's health, to exploring our relationship to culture and nature.

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