I’VE BEEN IN Old Crow for a week, and one of the first things people ask each other about is the caribou. Have you seen any upriver? Where? Bulls or cows? Moving in what direction?
Old Crow is 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Yukon, in the homelands of the Vuntut Gwitchin, one of a string of Indigenous Gwich’in villages stretching from the Northwest Territories to Alaska. People here have made their lives alongside migrating caribou since the end of the last ice age. In late August, we’re waiting for the herd of some 170,000 animals to leave their summer birthing grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and head southeast, where they spend each winter.
In 2017, the Trump Administration announced plans to sell oil leases in ANWR. Exploration and drilling is widely accepted by environmental groups and by the Gwich’in as a threat to the Porcupine caribou herd and the ecosystem upon which they depend. But the income from the sales, which the White House estimated at $1.8 billion over a decade, was supposed to be a revenue generator in the wake of the 2017 Republican tax bill. Caribou lives would, indirectly, pay for a plan unusually beneficial to the wealthiest Americans.
But on Aug. 21, the New York Times reported that Trump’s estimates of ANWR revenue were wildly inflated: the Times analysis estimated the number at just $45 million over a decade. A day later, this too was part of the news we shared in Old Crow.
Few people I’ve talked to here are surprised. Outside the Arctic, jiggering numbers and suppressing scientific reports to promote drilling in ANWR is completely in line with an administration rarely encumbered by empirical fact when fiction is more politically expedient. But in the Arctic, it’s resonant with a much longer history, one in which misrepresenting the true profits — and costs — of resource use is terribly familiar.
Take the first Arctic oil boom. In the middle of the nineteenth century, this rush was not for petroleum, but whale oil. Commercial hunters from New England killed bowhead whales along the Bering Strait and east into the Beaufort Sea, just a hundred miles or so north of Old Crow. Each ship was financed by investors in New Bedford and Nantucket, rich men who took the largest share of any profit. Industry boosters buoyed investment with reports of new whaling “grounds,” despite voyages that grew longer and more hazardous year by year, as whales were hunted to scarcity. For this dangerous work, sailors earned only a small portion of the profit.
The costs of whaling, meanwhile, remained hidden to whale-oil investors and consumers alike, but were very clear in the Arctic. Yupik and Iñupiaq villages along the Alaska coast, where people were as dependent on bowheads as the Gwich’in are on caribou, saw no revenue from commercial whaling. None of the money made from the whales that supported their societies stayed in the north. Instead, their communities were left, after 50 years and the deaths of nearly 20,000 bowheads, with empty seas and starvation. This was the price for mansions in New Bedford.
Or there is the gold rush. Newspapers across the world ran breathless reports of men becoming millionaires in a lucky afternoon a few hundred miles south of Old Crow, at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, alongside ads for mining equipment and transport companies headed north. Tens of thousands of men — and they were mostly men — bought those companies’ tickets on the promise of making a fortune by panning gold.
For most, the rush was a bust, the profits flowing not to individuals but to corporations able to finance heavy equipment, companies who, like whaling investors, took their profits far from the Yukon. And money went to men like Donald Trump’s grandfather Frederick, who made part of his North American fortune operating a brothel and saloon in the Yukon goldfields. Soothing the dashed hopes of miners was, for most, more profitable than mining itself.
And the cost? Besides ruined finances and deaths of prospectors, gold mining left the area around Dawson City scarred with toxic mine tailings, rerouted streams, and hillsides stripped of trees and weeping soil into rivers. These rivers, already disrupted to their beds by pans and dredges, became less a shelter to salmon and the other fish critical to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the Indigenous people of the Klondike valley, displaced and dispossessed of their land by the influx of prospectors. Rivers and the people who lived on them were, indirectly, paying for wealth accumulated far away.
Gwich’in communities in Canada and the United States have spent decades trying to keep this history from repeating, to stop siphoning away the wealth in Alaskan oil and leaving the scarred earth and pollution that comes with industrial development. Gwich’in delegates regularly visit Congress to explain the importance of caribou in their lives and of ANWR to the global environment. On Sept. 12, their efforts yielded the passage of a House bill that would prohibit drilling on the coastal plain, an area “so special, so wild, so spectacular,” Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, stated, it has “to be off limits to being spoiled by oil and gas development.” But now, the issue goes to the Senate, where a bill seems unlikely to garner the necessary support. Meanwhile, the Trump administration moves forward, releasing a report on the envionmental impact of the oil leases.
I have lived in and visited Old Crow for 20 years now. It is both unthinkable and terribly possible that there might be a late August when I visit and there are no caribou to ask after. Unthinkable, because caribou are central to so much in Old Crow. Terribly possible, because Trump’s inflated claims about ANWR are of a piece with the history of resource extraction in the Arctic, one replete with lies about potential profits and blindness to real costs. At the core of this history is theft: of land from the Arctic’s Indigenous peoples, and wealth from its ecosystems, in the form of whales or clear rivers. But as the Senate prepares to vote on opening leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we still have the option to see the real cost — and the option to not be thieves.
Bathsheba Demuth is an environmental historian of the Arctic at Brown University, and author of “Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait.”