Sen. John McCain said this week he would not drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the same reason he "would not drill in the Grand Canyon ... I believe this area should be kept pristine."
Pristine means unspoiled, virginal, in an original state.
One wonders how pristine the Grand Canyon can be if it has roughly 5 million visitors every year, rafting, hiking, picnicking and riding mules up one side and down the other. Campfires, RVs and motels that do not conjure the word "virginal" ring around large swaths of it.
This isn't to say that the Grand Canyon isn't a beautiful place; it inspires awe among those who visit it. ANWR (pronounced "AN-wahr) inspires awe almost entirely in those who haven't been there. It is an environmental Brigadoon or Shangri-La, a fabled land almost no one will ever see. That is its appeal. People like the idea that there are still Edens "out there" even if they will never, ever see them.
Indeed, if Americans could visit the north coast of Alaska, as I have, as easily as they can visit the Grand Canyon, the oil would be flowing by now.
ANWR is roughly the size of South Carolina, and it is spectacular. However, the area where, according to Department of Interior estimates, some 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil reside is much smaller and not necessarily as awe-inspiring. It would amount to the size of Dulles airport.
Question for McCain: Has South Carolina been ruined because it has an airport?
Most of the images of the proposed drilling area that people see on the evening news are misleading precisely because they tend to show the glorious parts of ANWR, even though that's not where the drilling would take place. Even when they position their cameras in the right location, producers tend to point them in the wrong direction. They point them south, toward the Brooks mountain range, rather than north, across the coastal plain where the drilling would be.
In summer, the coastal plain is mostly mosquito-plagued tundra and bogs. (The roughnecks at Prudhoe Bay joke that "life begins at 40" - because at 40 degrees, clouds of mosquitoes and other pests take flight from the ocean of puddles). In the winter, it reaches 70 degrees below zero (not counting wind chill, which brings it to 120 below) and is in round-the-clock darkness.
A few years back, Jimmy Carter wrote of proposed drilling in ANWR in the New York Times: "The roar alone - of road-building, trucks, drilling and generators - would pollute the wild music of the Arctic and be as out of place there as it would be in the heart of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon."
The roads are made from ice, hence constructed in winter, doing no permanent damage to the environment. As for the discordant notes such activity would introduce to the Arctic symphony, I don't know whether a falling tree makes a sound if no one is there to hear it, but I suspect that the "wild music" of the Arctic in winter is only euphonious to those - like Carter - who are not actually there to hear it.
Even in summer, people who actually live on the north coast of Alaska, like the residents of Kaktovik (just three miles north of the coastal plain where drilling might take place) overwhelmingly think good jobs in their backyard is music to their ears.
Meanwhile, is the "music" of the Grand Canyon really so pristine? Babies crying, kids chasing lizards, campers laughing, donkeys braying, cars honking: Why does this not trouble the consciences of Carter and McCain?
Perhaps it's because the analogy between ANWR and the Grand Canyon is spurious on its face. "Pristine," after all, is not synonymous with beautiful (there are ugly virgins), and "well-trafficked" is not the same as ugly (millions of people have seen the Sistine Chapel).
Indeed, before the age of environmental Romanticism had captured elite opinion in this country, such analogies didn't pass the laugh test. Both the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards enthusiastically supported drilling in ANWR in the late 1980s. The Post noted that the area "is one of the bleakest, most remote places on this continent, and there is hardly any other where drilling would have less impact on surrounding life. ..." To say such things today is to unforgivably pollute the inane music of groupthink. And that's something even the "maverick" McCain will not do.