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DON'T SACRIFICE WILDERNESS FOR A YEAR'S WORTH OF OIL

Call me a dreamer but please don't spoil Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with oil wells, roads and shacks. There is so little on earth that remains as the creator made it. Listen a moment to some scenes from an intrusion there in August 1998:

We leapt from our rubber rafts, and pulled them out of the rushing gravel-ribboned river. There were musk oxen!

We needed binoculars to see them well, but they needed no help in their acute awareness of us. We moved toward them. The big bull instantly countered. He trotted forward between his calves and us. We pulled together and faded back to look larger but less challenging.

Our naked eyes saw the oxen as fuzzy brown balls slowly crossing the distant lake head. Binoculars revealed massive shoulders, spindly shanks, foreshortened faces and the slender, curling menace of their horns. Each wore a formal skirt of brown fur hanging to the heels behind.

There, on the spongy green tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, two herds - musk oxen and intruders - watched one another for a hypnotic hour. We gave up first, to continue rafting the Ivischack River out of the Brooks Range toward the oily wasteland of Prudhoe Bay.

The day before that, we had climbed through tall grass, in this treeless country, toward scree at the base of a gray moonscape peak. We came upon a patch of grass 10 feet in diameter, packed down and stinking of body odor much worse than we who hadn't bathed in two weeks did. A grizzly had slept there that night.

This was his country. Our protection was pepper spray and the knowledge that men rarely trod here. These bears do not know men to be a source of food. Natural wariness keeps them away. We found the cave where the sleeper or his wife had denned-up last winter, and we curled inside for a daring moment. What a magnificent view she had. What a thrill for us to be her guest.

In the refuge, the silent expanse of the Ivischack Valley, with its toothlike peaks, endless tundra and pouring glacial river, is also the home of wolves, polar bear and 150,000 caribou. Just a few thousand native people, Inupiats and Gwitch-in, live off the bounty of that land. Entering there, we found ourselves in a breathtaking cathedral of a world.

On our way out, we passed the rubbish-strewn airstrip at Happy Valley along the pipeline to Valdez. There, waiting for our bush pilot to fly us in to the Brooks Range, we had spent a damp night in a ruined, mildewy trailer that had one end hacked open to the elements. We called it the ARCO Hotel for the letters painted on its side.

Up river we had seen no sign of man - no footprints, no litter. But then we passed this dump again. God, please keep this mess out of the valley.

OK wise guys, so I'm a dreamer. But here are a couple of facts. The best estimate of the amount of oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge is enough to last the world for just one year. The world has only 50 more years of oil.

Instead of investing in oil now, let's figure out what we do after the oil is gone. Let's get into clean solar and wind energy right now. Let's not trade this piece of heaven, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for another year of oil burning and smog.

LARRY BEAHAN lives in Amherst.

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