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  • Ken Ilgunas

The Value of the National Petroleum Reserve

From Gates of the Arctic National Park, just south of the National Petroleum Reserve

Christopher Solomon has a lovely piece in NYT‘s Sunday Review.

I have lived near the National Petroleum Reserve (a cold and undignified name, sadly, for this beautiful place) in Alaska, on and off, for years. I have never stepped foot in it, but I know the reserve by reputation and I am familiar with the Alaskan Arctic’s surrounding lands, which are breathtakingly wild and inspiring and full of life. It’s likely that I will never step foot in the reserve, yet I am grateful that it exists. It brings me comfort to know that, although we are altering the climate, removing forests, and losing other species, there is at least one place on earth where ecosystems are strong and intact, or, at the very least, where nature gets to exist, change, and evolve without our meddling.

A few nodding donkeys in an empty land may seem harmless, but when we drill for oil we do more than just drill for oil: We build a network of sprawling roads. Other extractive industries move in and plunder the land. Businesses spring up, buildings are erected, tourists flood in, hunters exploit fragile animal populations, and the tentacles of civilization creep up and around and strangle yet another wilderness. You can talk me into agreeing that, some of the time, this pattern is good and okay. But to let this happen everywhere, all of the time — from the East Coast to the West, and finally the Great Alaskan North — will always seem to me shortsighted and uncivilized. When we think of the best of civilization we appropriately think of our cathedrals, our cities, our cars, our beautiful art, our music, our films. It’s stuff we’ve built. It’s stuff we’ve made. I admire these things too, yet I think sometimes the most civilized thing a civilized people can do is to leave an already-perfect piece of artwork untouched, to let alone one great big expanse of land. Not only so that we have something to revere, imagine, dream about, and enjoy, but so that we can, in our most enlightened, our most civilized state of mind, refrain from thinking purely of ourselves when we can do something bigger: give space for a healthy ecosystem, an animal kingdom, and the whims of nature to exist and thrive. I wish we’d think of our wild lands less as random areas we’ll never photograph or hike in, and more as astounding human accomplishments than can imbue national pride in us all. The deliberate protection of a great, wild land ought to be thought of the way we think of national independence, the moon landing, the abolishment of slavery—grand feats of ingenuity, passion, and sacrifice. Protected land, when you think about it this way, is also something we’ve built. It’s something we’ve made. Wild land is not something we’ve merely refrained from developing; it was built by philosophizing, planning, conserving, and protecting, and thus should be admired not just as pretty scenery, but as a product of our ingenuity, enlightenment, and labor. I understand that oil is valuable, and that we are dependent on fossil fuels. I understand sacrifices and compromises need to be made until better answers are found. I understand people need jobs. But I can only hope that wants are not confused for needs, and that we will recognize that places we value as profitable “commodities” can actually achieve a greater value if we embrace them for what they can be—sacred places, reminders of our humanity, examples of our enlightenment, landscapes of our dreams.


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