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Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 04:14 GMT 05:14 UK
Eyewitness: Changing face of the Arctic
A task force set up by US President George W Bush to examine energy policy in the United States is expected to report next week that more areas of the country should be opened for oil drilling.

One of those areas is the northern tip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which is thought to contain substantial oil reserves. But the plan is being condemned by environmental groups who say drilling could damage the fragile ecosystem there.

The BBC's Richard Lister reports from the area.

The traditional image most people have of the Arctic, myself included, is of a vast, featureless blanket of ice, inhabited by polar bears and the occasional Eskimo.

The reality is that there are several different kinds of Arctic, even within that part of it which is US territory.

A sign warning of polar bears
Polar bears are increasing in numbers
There are places where the sea ice stretches to the horizon, broken only by the occasional, trapped iceberg. Here you can find polar bears in increasing numbers.

Elsewhere, there are stunning, mountain ranges with trees and rivers, home to caribou, wolves and the occasional musk ox.

It is also a region that produces about a million barrels of oil a day.

Prudhoe Bay is a network of gravel roads, production plants and drilling derricks. Gas flares line the horizon.

The oil companies want to drill in the northern part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and for the most part the native Inupiat people support the plan.

Many still live in tiny, remote settlements along the north coast.

They described themselves to me as Eskimos - even though many such groups elsewhere object to the term.

Prudhoe Bay
The region produces a million of barrels of oil a day
The igloo (or iglu) and the sod house have now gone, but the people retain many traditional activities such as whaling, and they celebrate their unique culture at spring festivals throughout the region.

But much of their income now comes from taxes on the oil companies, and I found few people who opposed new onshore drilling - even in ANWR.

The strongest voices against, came from the Gwich'en Indians further south, who feared the impact on Caribou herds.

Over the course of 11 days, we travelled to Barrow, Prudhoe Bay, the Inupiat village of Kaktovic and Arctic Village, home of the Grich'en people.

We flew in small propeller planes to landing strips often longer than the villages themselves.

We avoided the worst of the cold weather, but it still froze hard enough to snap pieces off our tripod and camera, and make staying warm a constant challenge.

The upside was that there were almost 24 hours of daylight, in which to film this extraordinary region.

It is now facing considerable change from global warming, America's demand for oil and the desire by the native people themselves to maintain their culture, even as they seek a more secure future.

Producer: Karina Rozentals
Camera/editor: Mark Rabbage

Richard Lister answered your questions about the region live on line - go to the link on the right-hand side of this page to watch the webcast.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Richard Lister
"This may be the most pristine wilderness in America"
See also:

11 Apr 01 | Americas
Opposition grows to Alaska oil drill
12 Jul 99 | Americas
Alaska oil disaster 'imminent'
15 Nov 00 | Americas
Alaskans face the thaw
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