KAKTOVIK -- Imagine this: You're in a small airplane buzzing through the vast Arctic emptiness. Clouds hang over the snow-crusted tundra. Sea ice stretches out of sight to the north.
Imagine it, because if you are like 99.99 percent of Americans, you will never see this place yourself. Imagine it, because if you don't, then others will do so for you.
This is the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the idea of a place can be as important as its reality.
Is this a promising oilfield, or an inspiring wilderness? An icy wasteland, or a sacred caribou calving grounds?
As debate about oil drilling here revives, the coastal plain's fate will depend on which image of it prevails in far-off circles of power and public opinion.
That is why -- before the airplane touches down and Arctic reality blasts in at 25 below -- it is time for a tour of images.
First stop: Florida, 3,800 miles away, at the St. Petersburg home of Virginia Reese. Palms sway in the yard. Sailboats glide across the bay.
Reese, 86, has never been to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has no plans to go, but she cherishes it anyway. Her images of the coastal plain come from newspapers and nature shows.
''I understand it's very beautiful,'' she says. ''I've seen pictures that certainly look beautiful. The caribou go up there from Canada.''
She recently gave a presentation on the coastal plain to her garden circle. She's against drilling there.
''All the information that's been available has convinced me that we should preserve it,'' she says. ''I think God has done a wonderful job in creating this Earth. We shouldn't go out and destroy the beauty. We have destroyed so much already. It's just time to stop.''
Another thing about Virginia Reese: She votes.
This matters in Washington, D.C., where the coastal plain is 3,300 miles away but seems much closer these days.
It pops up in bills and budget proposals. It's the subject of public-opinion polls and Senate vote counts. It headlines the clash between environmentalists and a new president who used to be a Texas oilman.
''We need to win the first battle,'' says Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. ''It's the top priority of the national environmental community.''
Though environmentalists were heartened by President Bush's recent acknowledgment that drilling plans he supports will be difficult to get through Congress, neither side is relaxing.
''It's a national security issue,'' says Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, a drilling supporter who hopes that recent events -- California blackouts, Middle East troubles -- will shift public opinion his way.
The coastal plain was set aside for wildlife in 1960 as part of the Arctic National Wildlife Range. In 1980, however, when Congress expanded the range and renamed it a refuge, a 1.5 million-acre section of the plain was declared a study area to investigate oil and gas potential.
Twenty-one years later, the area remains in dispute. Drilling is not allowed, but preservation is not assured.
Oil interests promote an image of the coastal plain as an exciting oil prospect of perhaps 10 billion barrels, maybe even more, and they promise to drill with little harm to the environment. Noting that 8 million acres of the 19 million-acre refuge is already designated wilderness, they question the need for preserving more.
Environmentalists question the need for more oil development of the sort found at Prudhoe Bay, 60 miles west of the refuge boundary. Portraying the refuge's coastal plain as ''America's Serengeti,'' they worry about development's effects on polar bears, migratory birds and 140,000 caribou.
In Anchorage, 600 miles from the coastal plain, a Boeing 737 taxies toward the runway. The jetliner is one of two planes chartered by oil companies to shuttle 20,000 workers a month to and from Alaska's North Slope oilfields.
In a plane full of somber men heading back to work, Craig Smith is bubbling. It's his first time back to Prudhoe Bay after nearly five years, and he loves the place. Never mind that it's 30 below zero up there this day. The money is good, the oil-camp food is great, and he feels proud to be part of something important.
''It's a neat industry to be involved in,'' says Smith, 42, a crew chief with Schlumberger Wireline and Testing, which blasts holes in well casings to let oil in. ''I like that it's something we rely on. Until some alternative energy comes along, this is the best thing we've got going.''
To Smith, Prudhoe Bay's pipelines, roads, drilling pads and battleship-size buildings are a monument to technical prowess in the harshest of environments.His image of the coastal plain: It's the next blank spot on the map awaiting oil development, so close to Prudhoe Bay pipelines that it doesn't make sense NOT to drill.
Most Alaskans, if not Americans elsewhere, appear to agree.
Anchorage pollster Dave Dittman says about 70 percent of Alaskans favor oil exploration in the refuge. But just 36 percent of all Americans approve, and 57 percent disapprove, according to a CBS-New York Times poll in March.
As the jetliner streaks north, Smith doodles sketches of grease tubes and flow-line valves. The plane descends toward Prudhoe Bay, and Smith leans over to look out the window. Below, gleaming against the snow, is the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
''It excites me to see that,'' he says. ''It's like a steel snake running through the wilderness. In the summertime, there's green grass all around, caribou under it, metal glinting in the sun. It's real pretty.''
Vested interests have spent millions packaging images of the coastal plain for public consumption.
Oil companies gladly take reporters, congressmen and others on tours of Prudhoe Bay, showing off technological advances that reduce the environmental impact of oil development.
On a recent tour, BP Exploration spokesman Ronald Chappell talked up new, low-impact ice roads and oil wells that spread out underground from a single drilling pad to reduce the surface ''footprint.''
Not on the itinerary -- though Chappell said he'd go there if his visitors really wanted to -- was a site where a pipeline had ruptured days earlier, spilling up to 9,000 gallons of crude.
Environmentalists sell their own images of the coastal plain, urging reporters to stop in at Arctic Village. It's south of the Brooks Range, 150 miles from the coastal plain, but the village's Gwich'in Indians hunt the migratory caribou that give birth on the plain each summer.
The Gwich'in consider the coastal plain ''their Jerusalem,'' says Deborah Williams, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation. ''This is a question of cultural genocide, if the sacred calving grounds are violated,'' she says.
Debbie Miller knows the importance of images. The author of a book called ''Midnight Wilderness,'' she fell in love with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 25 years ago when she and her husband, Dennis, moved to Alaska from California.
The coastal plain she wants people to see is a soul-stirring expanse of unspoiled nature. Sitting in a Fairbanks restaurant, 400 miles away, she tells of months spent hiking, climbing and kayaking across the coastal plain and neighboring mountains.
She speaks of spotting wolves and wolverines. Her eyes grow wide as she recalls looking over her shoulder one day to see caribou on the horizon. Soon 40,000 caribou were trotting past her tent.
''We were completely surrounded, like an island in a sea of animals,'' she says.
On Miller's coastal plain, a glorious isolation prevails. No droning airplanes or cars. No fences, buildings or roads. Instead, a sense that you're the first person ever to set foot there.
''Nothing restricts you,'' she says. ''There's a feeling of freedom and space and beauty.''
Drill for oil on the coastal plain?
''It seems so greedy to me,'' Miller says. ''They've already got 95 percent of the North Slope set aside for oil and gas. Why not set one section of the Arctic aside and just leave it alone?''
The small airplane descends through the clouds. Far ahead, the Eskimo village of Kaktovik comes into view, a speck amid endless white.
Four blocks wide and nine blocks long, the fragile patch of humanity clings to the continent's northern edge, where Arctic Ocean ice grinds against the tundra.
Kaktovik's 260 residents need no outside image-makers to know the coastal plain. To them, it is home. If they're familiar with its landmarks, it is because they named them: Katak, third fishing hole. Sanniqsaaluk, the place of log cabins. Naalagiagvik, where you go to listen.
They know the land in winter, nearly 10 months of the year, when gales can blow for days and temperatures drop to minus 50 degrees. They know it in the brief summer, when the tundra turns green and caribou and birds rush in.
''I know where all the fish are,'' says Herman Aishanna, 62, whaling captain and head of the village maintenance shop. ''I know where you can take a bath in the middle of the winter and still feel warm. I know this country.''
Villagers want America's image of the coastal plain to include the people who live here.
For as long as Aishanna's people remember, the coastal plain has helped sustain them. In the past that has meant caribou, berries and fish. Now they're thinking it might mean oil, gas and money in the bank.
Kaktovik residents live in snug frame houses, not sod homes as their grandparents did. They drive snowmobiles, not dog sleds. They need money to participate in modern society, which they learn about on satellite TV.
Villagers were wary when the oil industry first came courting. But Aishanna says he has seen more good than bad come from Prudhoe Bay. It's clean enough over there, he says, and the caribou seem to be faring well. Besides, taxes levied by the North Slope Borough on oilfield developments have brought good things to Kaktovik: better houses, a big school with a swimming pool, a public-transit van.
Mayor Lon Sonsalla says oil and gas development on the coastal plain would prolong the flow of oil money to Kaktovik. He and Aishanna reflect the majority view in the village: Bring on the drills.
''I wouldn't hurt the caribou for the world,'' Aishanna says. ''I can talk to the oil industry not to hurt them.''
The mayor agrees: ''The oil companies really want to work with people here. They'll bend over backwards. I know they will.''
Somewhere beyond the images is the real coastal plain -- and it is time to find it.
Put on parka, fleece pants, heavy boots, face mask, mittens. Stride bulkily out of Kaktovik, along the road to the dump, then drop down a bluff onto the snow-covered ice of the lagoon. The coastal plain is right ahead.
At minus 25 degrees, boots squeak on the dry snow as if it were made of Styrofoam. Cobwebs of frost grow on face mask and hood. Keep walking, and soon all that's visible of Kaktovik is a smudge of smoke from its power plant. Walk farther still, and the noisy grinding of construction equipment falls away.
The world is silent, waiting. Ice crystals sparkle in the air, above snow carved into long ridges by the wind. Miles to the south, the Brooks Range is a white mirage, jutting from the plain like the Rockies without Denver.
What's to become of this place, poised just beyond civilization's farthest reach?
Listen to the land, and the land says nothing. Seek visions, and the bright expanse of snow becomes a mirror. It reveals no truth; just our own images of the coastal plain.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- David Foster is the AP's Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.
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