Hardly A Pretty Place

Jonah Goldberg

7/20/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
"Even if there were oil, let's say, in Central Park, in the Everglades, in Yosemite Valley, in the Redwoods, do we want to develop oil there?" asked Deborah Williams in a recent broadcast of "60 Minutes." Williams, the executive director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, believes the answer is obviously "No." Williams is one of the leading spokespeople against oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR ("Anwar"). And this argument has been offered, almost verbatim, by Jimmy Carter, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and a host of others. It's a strong, persuasive argument. In fact there's only one problem with it: It's completely false. How do I know? Well, because I've been there. I recently returned from a trip (for a National Review article) to several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle to see what has become the Dome of the Rock of environmentalism. I've also been to Central Park. So, having been both places, let me tell you what's wrong with the comparison. First of all, if New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani learned that there were between 3 and 16 (ital) billion (end ital) barrels of oil underneath Central Park, he would be out there first thing Monday morning laying down orange traffic cones to save parking spaces for the roughnecks. But more to the point, Central Park is in many ways the exact opposite of the tiny sliver of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being considered for oil development. Central Park is manmade, literally. The original land was filled with shanty towns sitting on mud flats and populated by dirt-poor Irish, blacks and Germans. Today, Central Park is beautiful and millions of people move through its 843 acres either by foot or by car every day. Now, consider ANWR. It is in Alaska, a state whose entire population is roughly equal to the city of Milwaukee, Wis. At the same time, the 49th state is big enough to fit France, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Italy (ital) combined (end ital) with room to spare. ANWR itself is huge by the standards of the lower 48, about the size of South Carolina, or the equivalent of more than 21,000 Central Parks. The differences don't end there. While preparing for my trip to ANWR, I'd read that this was the most beautiful place on Earth. This was the famous "American Serengeti," as the enviros call it. Senator Joseph Lieberman, denouncing George Bush and Dick Cheney, predicted that oil exploration in ANWR "would cause irreversible damage to one of God's most awesome creations." So, I was a little surprised to discover that if you wanted a picture to go with the word "Godforsaken" in the dictionary, ANWR would do nicely. Actually, that's not fair. You see, the environmentalists and their compatriots in the media play a dirty trick on the public. Most of ANWR is beautiful. But the pretty mountains and lakes you see on the evening news are safe from oil exploration by law and by the fact that there's no oil there. The oil is on the coastal plain at the very top of ANWR on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. And that ain't beautiful. Believe me. Winter on the coastal plain lasts for nine months. Total darkness reigns for 58 straight days. The temperatures drop to 70 degrees below zero without wind chill. This is the time of year when the oil companies would do almost all of their work; when nary a caribou nor any other creature would be dumb enough to venture out on to the frozen tundra for long. Regardless, ANWR's summer is no picnic either. The coastal plain is covered in a thick brick of ice for much of the year. When it melts, it creates, well, puddles. Lots and lots of puddles - and mud. This provides the (ital) lebensraum (end ital) that mosquitoes and other flying critters need to stretch their wings. In short, the section that Lieberman claims as one of "God's most awesome creations" is a colossal fetid petri dish for some of the worst flying pestilence you can imagine. Every moment I was outside, the mosquitoes swarmed around me like John McCain near a TV camera. The myth has been perpetuated that wildlife on the "American Serengeti" is more fragile than a butterfly's wings, especially for the exalted caribou. But, in next-door Prudhoe Bay, the number of caribou has increased fivefold since oil exploration began decades ago. One explanation for the caribou's success in Prudhoe is that the infrastructure gives the caribou an opportunity to hide from the trillions of mosquitoes, as well as the nostril flies (yes, they lay their eggs in the caribou's nose) and parasitic warble flies that make life a living hell for the animals. Opponents of drilling in ANWR succeed by appealing to the imaginations of guilty liberal environmentalists. So they compare ANWR to places we humans go and enjoy, like Central Park, Yosemite and other of God's "most awesome creations." If you don't want to drill for oil in ANWR that's fine. But don't slander God by saying this giant mosquito pool is among his finest works.