High Noon On The Alaskan Tundra

A chill November wind swept across the Alaskan tundra, a bitter reminder to Sarah James that it was time to return to Washington. James, a Gwich'in American Indian, is making a last-ditch effort to stop Congress from opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. She argues that drilling would disrupt the migratory routes of caribou--the source of her tribe's food, legends, songs, and dances. "Caribou is sacred to us," says James, a member of the tribal committee fighting the oil drilling. "Without it, we wouldn't be able to exist."

The 7,000 Gwich'in have become key players in a white-hot lobbying battle on Capitol Hill. At issue is whether to allow drilling in the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, one of the last untapped oil fields in the U.S. The GOP has attached a measure to the budget bill allowing the drilling, making it a key issue in fractious budget talks. President Clinton, eyeing polls that show the environment is a top concern, has vowed to veto any bill that contains the provision.

POWERFUL FOES. Joining the Gwich'in in their antidrilling crusade are environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. They argue that drilling in the fragile ecosystem would interrupt caribou calving, damage polar bear habitats, harm snow geese, and mar the beauty of the pristine wilderness. The U.S. doesn't need the oil, they say, pointing to a Nov. 28 decision by Clinton to lift a 22-year export ban on oil drilled in Alaska's North Slope.

But environmental groups have met their match in Alaska's three-man Republican delegation. The trio is powerful because they can withhold funding for other lawmakers' pet projects: Senator Frank H. Murkowski chairs the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, Senator Ted Stevens heads the Appropriations defense subcommittee, and Representative Don Young chairs the House Resources Committee. Several GOP Hill staffers say privately that some members opposed to drilling voted for it anyway, fearing retribution from these chairmen.

The delegation is backed by powerful economic interests, too. Atlantic Richfield, British Petroleum, and Chevron have major operations in Alaska. The oil industry has given $400,000 to Arctic Power, a prodevelopment coalition of 14,000 Alaska businesses, unions, and citizens. The state government has kicked in $1 million. To counter the Gwich'in, drilling proponents are working with the Inupiat, who would profit from rights on some coastal plain land.

Alaska has a lot at stake. New oil revenues would help fill a state budget deficit caused by declining crude prices. Roger C. Herrera, Arctic Power's Washington coordinator, claims the measure also would create at least 250,000 jobs in Alaska and the lower 48. His group has flown in more than 100 lawmakers, spouses, and staffers to demonstrate that Prudhoe Bay pipelines haven't hurt caribou and brown bear. Now the fight returns to Washington, where the political heat is enough to melt Alaska's tundra.