ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Alaska -- Bracing himself against the cool breezes sweeping off the Arctic Ocean, Dave Hite holds up a piece of dark brown rock as if it were an omen.
"Everything seems to be telling you that oil is here," says Mr. Hite, who stands on a high ridge that juts from the lush green coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The U.S. oil industry describes this remote and wild place in Alaska's northeast corner as the nation's best hope for a major oil discovery. Environmentalists call it "America's Serengeti," comparing it to the biologically rich African plain.
Rivalry between the oil industry and the environmentalists is especially intense now because Congress could decide this year whether to lift its decade-long ban on oil exploration in the refuge, a calving ground for the caribou that are a major food source for Alaska's Arctic natives.
So now this ancient wilderness is a battleground over native food, the nation's energy supplies in the post-Persian Gulf war era and preservation of an untouched arctic and subarctic ecology -- the last of its kind in the world, according to environmentalists.
Each side in the conflict feels a sense of urgency.
It's the "last gasp" for finding big oil in Alaska, contends Mr. Hite, manager of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge evaluation for ARCO Alaska Inc.
A giant oil field has not been found in the state since the 1968 Prudhoe Bay discovery, and the amount of oil pumped through the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline, which supplies 25 percent of the oil produced in the United States, is dwindling.
The oil industry spent $47 billion to develop the North Slope oil field and wants to keep feeding that pipeline.
Environmentalists say the push to open the Arctic refuge for oil exploration is part of a "drain America first" national energy policy.
The wildlife refuge covers 19.3 million acres, but only the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain region -- a strip roughly 114 miles long and 36 miles wide -- is targeted for oil exploration. It lies 65 miles east of Prudhoe Bay.
The Interior Department estimates the odds are 1 in 5 of finding 600 million to 9.2 billion barrels of oil in the refuge. Oil seeps and oil-stained rocks are the strongest evidence of petroleum, and -- the oil industry says it should be allowed to search in the national interest.
Oil industry officials describe Alaska's treeless North Slope as a barren wasteland. It gets only about 10 inches of precipitation a year and most of the time it is covered with ice and snow. Winter temperatures reach 60 below zero.
But in summer, it resembles the Everglades -- wet and green with grass and wildflowers and pocked with ponds and lakes. Caribou and musk ox graze here. Wolves, grizzlies, polar bears and arctic fox prowl along with millions of nesting birds from all over the world.
In a sense, this is the "grocery store" for Alaskan natives. But its preservation also is a source of conflict among the natives -- who see themselves as whale or caribou people, depending on where they live.
The Eskimos, or Inupiat, of Barrow, Alaska, live on the coast about 450 miles west of the refuge. They once opposed oil development but now favor searching the refuge for oil. "We have not seen adverse effects on caribou and wildlife from oil activities," says Warren Matumeak, an official of the Arctic Slope native corporation.
Kaktovik, another Eskimo whaling community, is the only native village in the wildlife refuge. People there are more cautious.
"If the oil development doesn't go right, who is going to do the cleanup? We're the ones who put up with it," says Linda Akootchook.
Arctic Village, 200 miles inland and near the refuge's southern border, is the home of Athabaskan Indians who vehemently oppose probing the refuge for oil.
"We identify ourselves with the Porcupine caribou herd," says Sarah James. "We depend on them for food, tools, shelter and clothing."
"They sold out to the oil companies," Ms. James says of Barrow Eskimos. "They want the drilling onshore, but not offshore. They want to save the whales but don't want to save the caribou."
Alaska's Central Arctic caribou herd has grown from about 3,000 animals in 1971 to about 19,000 today, despite earlier fears that oil activity would harm the animals. But the state's Fish and Game Department notes a drop in caribou births in the past two years.
Oil industry officials, meanwhile, are taking reporters and public officials on tours of the modern Kuparuk River oil field, a "second-generation oil field" with the latest and cleanest in oil technology.
"The facilities here have a smaller footprint," says Scott Ronzio, ARCO's environmental science manager, explaining that modern Arctic oil wells are closer together and have less effect on the tundra.
Environmentalists have their own view.