KAKTOVIK, Alaska - For most of the year, it brings to mind the surface of the moon, this snow-covered treeless plain that rolls into the frozen Arctic Ocean so seamlessly it's impossible to tell where tundra ends and ocean begins. Snowdrifts take the shape of waves, frozen in action.
In the nearby Inupiat Eskimo village of Kaktovik, houses are built on metal stilts to keep them steady above the permafrost. Food is either hunted or flown in, and polar bears wander by for leftovers.
Here on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope, the temperature 30 below zero on this sunny day on the cusp of spring, people seem content to operate in a separate orbit from the rest of the country.
But now, this remote and isolated spot, closer to the North Pole than Washington, D.C., finds itself in the midst of a national debate. On one side, oil companies clamor to tap the billions of barrels of oil said to lie beneath the refuge. On the other side, environmentalists say drilling will despoil one of North America's last pristine ecosystems. This is land where 129,000 caribou migrate each year to their calving grounds, where polar bears come to den, and wolves, wolverines, arctic foxes, geese, millions of migratory birds and many other species come to feed on an explosion of growth that emerges after the winter freeze on the Arctic tundra.
This month, a task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney, the former CEO of one of the world's largest oil services companies, is expected to propose a new national energy policy that would open up the refuge's oil reserves - estimated at 3.2 billion to 16 billion barrels - to exploitation. President Bush, also a former oilman, has become an outspoken proponent of drilling in ANWR, as the refuge is commonly called. A fierce battle in Congress is expected to ensue, with one senator, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, threatening a filibuster to keep the refuge inviolate.
Hearing the state's future debated four time zones away in Washington, D.C., doesn't sit well in Alaska, said Dale DuFour, facilities manager at the Kaveolook School in Kaktovik, which owes its modern conveniences to oil revenues flowing from the vast Prudhoe Bay field, which lies due west of Kaktovik along the North Slope's coastal plain.
"This Kerry fellow in Massachusetts, saying we're going to protect the wildlife refuge," he said. "It's like me telling people in Massachusetts that they can't cut their grass."
"The majority of Americans want some places to be left the way God made them," countered Adam Kolton, Arctic campaign director for the Alaska Wilderness League. "You cannot explore, drill and extract oil from the wildest place left in America and do no harm."
That viewpoint is not popular in Alaska - three-quarters of state residents support drilling in ANWR, according to a recent poll. And in Kaktovik, a village poll conducted last month registered 78 percent support.
One reason so many Alaskans favor opening ANWR is that they have a vested interest in future oil production. Thanks to oil, each of the state's 626,000 residents gets a $2,000 annual check, just for living here, from the state's $26 billion Permanent Fund, fed by revenues collected from Prudhoe Bay oil. Thanks to oil, they pay no income tax, no state sales tax.
But that bounty is threatened because Prudhoe Bay's production is declining after nearly a quarter-century of pumping - from a peak of 2 million barrels a day in 1988 to just half that today - and the Permanent Fund is edging into the red, paying out more than it's earning.
For decades, Alaska's economy has depended on the extraction of natural resources: oil and gas drilling, logging, fishing, mining and hunting. But most of all oil, which contributed $2.4 billion to state coffers last year, financing 80 percent of the state budget.
Oil has made possible a busy network of air travel - jets, bush planes, float planes - that transports ordinary citizens around a vast state, one-fifth the size of the continental United States and much of it devoid of roads. Oil has turned this wild and remote place into a modern society, with satellite dishes in rural villages and money to send high school basketball teams on chartered planes to basketball tournaments at more than $10,000 a trip.
Anchorage, population 260,000, has a $70 million performing arts center, a municipal library, a convention center and arena - all built by state money amid the oil boom.