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Reviewed by Larry Schweiger

This Land Is Whose Land?

An impassioned plea on behalf of the "caribou people" in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the land they have inhabited for nearly 20,000 years.

Well known for his novels and stories, Rick Bass has also written a number of books on the natural world. In Caribou Rising, he visits the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a hunter, as a writer giving voice to threatened wildlife, and as a deeply troubled defender of ancient Gwich'in culture against government abuse. "Each year," Bass writes, "I become more ashamed and mortified by my government, and by the widening disparity between the people's will and the secret practices, secret allegiances, of big business and government."

This impassioned book details the real people and the real place behind a two–decade–long legislative struggle in Washington over the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The struggle is being waged by big oil companies against a few thousand Gwich'in people who have continuously inhabited the Arctic Refuge land for nearly 20,000 years, subsisting primarily on migrating caribou that thrive in the pristine landscape. At stake is an untrammeled coastal plain that provides critical mosquito relief during the summer for caribou and provides vital calving grounds for their reproduction. Viable caribou herds and the meat they yield are essential to the future of the caribou people.

Bass helps us to understand that the lives of those subsisting in Arctic Village, the Gwich'in base, will forever be changed by proposed legislation authorizing oil development in the fragile coastal Arctic Plain. He shares the compelling story of Trimble Gilbert, a Gwich'in Episcopal pastor who has served his people for more than forty years, preaching from a well–worn Bible covered with caribou hide. Gilbert warns his flock that "we are the last people. I hope you understand that. All the people with money are against us but we don't want to lose our culture." Giving hope to his community, Gilbert quotes, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."

Recent polls show that the Gwich' in have been joined in this David and Goliath struggle by a majority of Americans, who are opposed to drilling in the Arctic. The Gwich'in have also been actively supported by hundreds of thousands conservation–minded voters who have successfully turned back several previous attempts by the oil developers to get a federal license to drill the Wildlife Refuge during the past decade.

Some readers may be put off by the way by Bass personalizes the struggle, blaming the latest legislative proposals on "young George Bush's dreams of oil and old Dick Cheney's relentless, nearly religious pursuit of those ancient hydrocarbons buried beneath a landscape so pristine and astounding as to seem like the initial creation itself." But the issues involved in this conflict transcend party affiliation and the familiar divisions between Left and Right, liberal and conservative. In many ways this struggle over the caribou land is a test of American values and character. We all know the price of gas at the pump, but do we understand the true costs of oil development? Are we as a nation of energy consumers willing to restrain ourselves by driving more fuel–efficient cars to keep the core caribou calving area free of damage caused by the well drilling and oil transport? Must the legitimate and age–old rights of a few be trampled to make our highways cheaper for gas guzzlers twenty years from now?

This is the choice before us. Bass concludes with these words: "Year by year, in Congress, the debate rages, being cleaved and decided always by only one or two votes—like wild animals fighting over tendrils, ligaments, scraps."

Last week, on March 16, the U.S. Senate voted 51–49 to include President Bush's plan (which would allow oil drilling in the Wildlife Refuge) in the budget. Before the budget is adopted, the majority of Americans who reject this selfish and shortsighted policy must make their voices heard in Washington.

Larry Schweiger is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

Related Elsewhere:

Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich–'in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review, appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:

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