Posted: Jul 25, 2001 12:00 AM
Good, honest, full-throated indignation is nice to come on every now and then, and here is a sample. The provocation was by former President Jimmy Carter, writing in The New York Times. He was pleading against any oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). What he said was: "The simple fact is, drilling is inherently incompatible with wilderness. 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."

It is a devastating picture that Mr. Goldberg brings back from his trip. The sum of his case is that prospective oil drilling in Alaska could be done without any damage to live sensibilities. What are the reasons for the offensive against it? Let him tell it: "There's a simple explanation and a complicated one. The simple one is that it could be bad for the Porcupine River caribou herd. ... The more complicated explanation is that this is all a convenient and bogus cover for the simple fact that Americans generally -- and environmentalists like (Ted) Turner specifically -- are more than a little daft when it comes to ANWR."

Goldberg begins his informative dispatch with some graphic figures. The oil development on the North Slope dots a huge area, roughly the size of Minnesota. But the work is done on a comparatively tiny archipelago of "parking-lot-sized islands of human activity in a boundless ocean of tundra."

To get a perspective: Alaska has a population about the size of the nation's capital. But you could squeeze California into Alaska almost four times. Those who fear that Alaska is neglected in the matter of federal wildlife preservation are reminded that 60 percent of the official wilderness areas of the United States are in Alaska. ANWR (as everyone calls it) is way over on the northeastern side of the state, about the size of South Carolina. What the oil industry is asking for is access to 2,000 acres, an area no bigger than Dulles Airport. "This footprint would be 50 times smaller than the Montana ranch owned by Ted Turner, who helps bankroll efforts to keep ANWR off-limits."

Goldberg makes a shrewd point when he reminds us that life can be hypothetically grand, but in order to make the sentient appreciation of it real, you need to experience the beauty. I can speak of having experienced the beauty of the South Pole, but it helped, when I did that, that it was midsummer, that a large warm igloo waited for us with food and wine, and that the naval airplane that brought us there kept its engines running, lest they freeze shut while we lunched.

What you have in the ANWR part of the world is not just beautiful mountains, but five months of blackness in winter, and five months of perpetual sunshine in summer, when the melted ice has produced puddles in which the enemy breeds. "The water in an old tire can breed thousands of mosquitoes; a puddle in a junkyard, millions. ANWR is the Great Kingdom of the Mosquitoes." We are not talking about mosquitoes as mere nuisances. "On a bad day, according to the villagers in nearby Nuisquit, you can't open your mouth for fear of inhaling the mosquitoes."

Yes, there certainly is wildlife, though not even wolf packs can co-exist for very long with the mosquitoes. "Grizzly bears, like caribou, aren't frightened by oil exploration. They consider Deadhorse the Paris or New York of the North Slope; they come in to see the sights, perhaps grab a little dinner, even to catch a show. Everyone has a bear story; the owner of an air-charter service recounts to me how she came out of her office one day to find three bears sitting, expectantly, atop her car, as if she were late for the car pool."

Ah, the ideologization of nature. The Prudhoe Bay drilling has been done with the most fastidious attention to derivative effects. There is no hunting, not even fishing, tolerated. "I knew a guy who got fired for throwing a rock at a fox," one exasperated former ranger is quoted as saying. Speaking of Arctic foxes, many of them are rabid. The satisfaction taken by those who swear by the blessed virginity of ANWR is felt mostly by Americans who have not been deflowered by life there.