As a fledgling biologist back in the early 1980s, I helped with the Section 1002 baseline studies on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and later flew surveys for migrating whales out of Barrow and Deadhorse. These studies aimed to assess the impacts of oil and gas development, both onshore and offshore, on wildlife. I always got to my duty station by air, even though I was vaguely aware that a road had been built a decade earlier to the North Slope.
During its early years, most Alaskans referred to this highway simply as the "Haul Road," because of its heavy use by tractor-trailer rigs hauling supplies and equipment to the North Slope, including materials for building the trans-Alaska pipeline that borders the road, sometimes crossing it. In 1981, the highway was renamed after engineer James B. Dalton, who was involved in early oil exploration efforts on the North Slope including construction of the Distant Early Warning stations. Public access remained limited until 1994, when it became possible to drive all the way to Deadhorse.
The 414-mile Haul Road is an amazing piece of engineering. It was built in 154 days in 1974 with 32 million cubic yards of gravel, 20 permanent bridges, and grades as steep as 12 percent for $125 million. Besides the Dempster Highway in Canada, it is only the second road in North America that crosses the Arctic Circle. It is one of only three roads that span the Yukon River (including the Dawson City ferry), and ultimately crosses the continental divide through Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range.
So I finally got to drive the Haul Road last week. Having missed out on yet another drawing to harvest caribou on the Kenai, I decided to hunt the Dalton Highway Corridor Management Area (DHCMA) which intersects with multiple game management units. Big game can be taken by archery as long as you're more than mile off the road, but that mandatory distance stretches out to 5 miles if you use a gun. And no motorized vehicle can be used to transport hunters, hunting gear, or parts of game within the DHCMA.
Going for the easier of the two hunting options, at least with respect to getting the game in my vehicle, I chose the bow initially. But after a couple days of exciting close encounters (but not close enough) with unaware caribou, and knowing that my wife would kill me if I came back empty handed, I went for the more painful sure bet. The short story is that my hunting partner, Chris, and I put some meat in the freezer. We managed to sled over 200 pounds from the Central Arctic Herd in one long 5-mile trip across partially snow-covered tussocks. As Chris said when we finished, it was "fulfilling."
But even as I enjoyed my hunt and this road trip across the Far North, I saw the ecological consequences of oil development that were unanticipated back in the 1970s. Sweetclover, an invasive and exotic legume, grows on both sides of the Haul Road almost to Coldfoot. The engineering marvel that spanned 20 streams in less than half a year now threatens riparian habitat of great rivers in interior Alaska like the Kanuti, Koyukuk and Yukon.
And who could have imagined four decades ago that the carbon exhausted into the atmosphere would change the climate enough that the North Slope might someday be forested? At Milepost 235, just south of Atigun Pass, a sign posted in front of a tall but dead 273-year old spruce (killed by a vandal in 2004) announces that this is the northern-most tree on the Alaska pipeline. But as I look up the road a bit, toward the 4,739-foot Atigun Pass, I see other spruces growing, sure signs of an advancing treeline only held back by the harsh climate in the Brooks Range.
I'm fairly certain that this story is far from being played out. The complicated nexus of rapid climate change, invading species, resource extraction and use, and wildlife management will have many unexpected turns down the road. I'm reminded of that old adage: you can run but you can't hide.
John Morton is the supervisory biologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.