By Brooke Edwards
The purported huge economic gain to Alaska for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge utterly disregards the potential loss of a priceless and irreplaceable intact Arctic ecosystem already fragile under the burgeoning strain of climate change.
As a wilderness guide in Alaska for 20 years, I have brought people from around the world to experience the unhampered vast wildness of the Arctic. As Gwich’n Native Sam Alexander testified before congress: “We know that the land will heal you.” We are fortunate in Alaska to still have these healing sacred lands intact. When I have floated the rivers or walked the expansive tundra of this landscape with clients, I have been honored to witness lives being healed and transformed.
A healthy society is founded on a diversity of values. It embraces emotional, physical and spiritual health. Monetary gain as a solitary driver is equivalent to putting all of our eggs in one basket. It is neither healthy nor wise. However, in order to not just appear as the bleeding heart wilderness guide, I will happily put things into an economic perspective for comparison purposes.
Our Alaskan politicians act as if oil is the only thing that will provide jobs and money to our state. Yet, outdoor recreation in Alaska actually sustains more than four times the number of jobs in Alaska (72,000) than oil and gas production, mining and logging combined (15,000). This industry alone brings $337 million to our state and local tax revenue. In order for tourism to continue to be a successful industry in our state, we have to preserve the wilderness that people are paying to come visit. The area where Congress is proposing to open to drilling is valuable polar bear habitat. In 2016 alone, Alfredo Soto, a wildlife specialist for the refuge, reported 4,879 client use days; half of which were people coming specifically for the rare opportunity of getting to see a polar bear in the wild.
The Outdoor Industry Association reports that “Communities across Alaska recognize that outdoor recreation supports health, contributes to a high quality of life and — perhaps most importantly — attracts and sustains employers and families. Investing in outdoor infrastructure attracts employers and active work forces, ensuring those communities thrive economically and socially.”
We cannot go on pretending that oil will save us and that tourism is not a valuable contributor to our state’s economy. The facts on climate change are not debatable. We have the technology available to us to invest as a nation in more sustainable energy resources like solar, wind and tidal. It is inexcusable to remain stubbornly loyal to non-renewable resources; particularly when those who stand to benefit are the already wealthy out of state investors that don’t leave any of their money in Alaska.
The Arctic Refuge’s oil supply is limited and speculative. It is a carrot being held above the heads of unemployed of Alaska, but the “facts” are skewed. The current average lease bid on the North Slope is $194 per acre. To meet President Trump’s assumption of a $3.6 billion windfall from drilling in the refuge would require an average of $2,400 per acre for every single acre in the 1.5-billion acre Coastal Plain.
Alaskans have long been enticed by boom and bust economies. What truly makes us unique, though, is that we are the Last Frontier. Alaska is the last place of wide-open contiguous wilderness. Wilderness heals us and feeds us in ways that are incomprehensible to most. I need wilderness for my job as a guide, but more importantly, I need wilderness for the preservation of my humanity.
I stand with the Gwich’n Nation, people of the caribou, the global community who stand to be impacted from such a loss and all the guides and pilots who earn their living bringing people to the vast, healing beauty of the Coastal Plain in Arctic Refuge. This is sacred land and it deserves our respect.
Brooke Edwards lives in Girdwood, Alaska. She is a frequent visitor to the Methow Valley, where her mother and sister live.