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This place is a Zen thing. The only way to tell you've wandered in is the absence of anything saying so.

No signs. No road to get here. No advice from government stewards about what to seek out or what to avoid. No entrance fees and no officially licensed T-shirt.

This isn't just wilderness, contend those who want to keep it pristine, but a sanctuary for wildness.

It is also oil country.

With just the last half of the last year of the petroleum-friendly Bush administration remaining, the window for opening the land to drilling is about to close.

Yet $4 gasoline and a drain-circling economy have made Americans suddenly warmer to the idea of pumping from the Arctic wilderness.

President Bush is pushing again for exploration in ANWR. And the oil industry continues to point to expansion on Alaska's north slope as a way to decrease dependence on imported energy.

Those calling for drilling say oil development would barely touch ANWR, disturbing just 2,000 acres of a 19.2 million-acre outback. And exploration would not tromp on the spectacular Brooks Range mountains or their scenic foothills. Rather, it would be limited to the pancake-flat coastal plain along the Arctic Ocean.

While their argument has not triumphed during decades of appeals, they sense a shift.

“Public outrage over energy prices before an election can be a powerful thing,” said Roger Herrera, a spokesman for the pro-drilling group Arctic Power. “It can move some politicians.”

Resistance to drilling

Defenders of the refuge – they object to the common ANWR acronym as a denuding device – concede that the coastal plain may not be as photogenic as other parts of Alaska. Still, they say, it is a critical part of the larger ecosystem.

Mosquitoes, thick enough in June and July to kill an adult caribou, send large mammals down to the breezes of the coast for relief. Predators such as grizzly bears and wolves follow the caribou. Shore birds rely on the coastline for nesting. Musk oxen, foxes and weasels wander from mountain valleys to coastal flatlands.

“Not all habitats are created equal,” said Eleanor Huffines, the Alaska director of the Wilderness Society. “You need all kinds, (and) the rest of the coast is being leased and being drilled.”

A change would open more than 100 miles of Alaskan coastline to drilling, meaning leases on more than half of the state's northern shore. Efforts to tap into the oil potential of the land go back before it was established as a refuge. The debate has not stopped since.

On Dec. 6, 1960, the Interior Department set aside most of the land by administrative caveat “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wildness and recreational values” after a congressional effort to establish the refuge failed.

Twenty years later in 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska Lands Act, expanding the refuge and meaning it would take an act of Congress to open the land to drilling.

In the past 15 years, the House has passed bills 10 times that would have opened ANWR to drilling. The Senate went along in 1995, but President Clinton vetoed the measure.

Through the Bush years, the Senate has been the chief obstacle for drilling. Even when proposals to tap the refuge for oil had a majority of votes in the upper chamber, there have not been the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Drilling advocates still appear to lack the supermajority that could win in the Senate.

The result had been largely in line with how Americans have felt.

Change in public opinion

At the start of this decade, more than two-thirds of Americans routinely told pollsters the environment should win priority over the economy. Now, just half rank green over greenbacks.

A Gallup poll in May found that 57 percent of Americans favor “drilling in U.S. coastal and wilderness areas,” though it didn't specifically ask about ANWR. (Alaskans, who see an immediate payoff to their economy from drilling in taxes and jobs, overwhelmingly support tapping into the refuge.)

Polls by the Pew Center found sizable national shifts on the specific issue of Arctic refuge drilling just this year. In February, when gasoline prices averaged less than $3 a gallon, just 42 percent favored ANWR drilling.

Four months and $1 a gallon later, a full 50 percent were ready to suck oil from the refuge. And growing support could be found among all age groups, political affiliations and education levels.

That has given drilling advocates hope for a similar shift on Capitol Hill.

‘A long road' to relief

A bill moving through the House would again try to open the refuge to drilling and direct money generated by the leases to fund alternative energy projects.

“It's still a long road,” said Steve Hansen, a GOP spokesman on the House Natural Resources Committee, where Rep. Don Young of Alaska has long pushed for drilling. “But right now the chances for opening ANWR for drilling are better than they have been for years.”

Would more drilling in Alaska, in the end, move prices at the pump? Barely, suggest experts.

Still, geologists believe much could be sucked from the new petroleum frontier. Oil worth at least $1 trillion likely sits below the refuge. It could add 27 million gallons of gasoline and diesel to the daily U.S. supply, or an increase of 20 percent of domestic production. Over the estimated 30-year life of the oil field, drilling could deliver between 5 billion and 20 billion barrels of oil.

Yet if drilling were OK'd today, the government estimates it still might take 10 years before oil began to flow. And at its peak, the coastal oil field might pump just 1 million of the 87 million barrels of oil harvested daily worldwide.

Energy Information Administration estimates suggest ANWR drilling could cut U.S. imports to about two-thirds of its oil – rather than 70 percent – and that gas prices might drop a penny or two a gallon. Even that change could be wiped out if Saudi Arabia curtailed its production slightly to account for a global increase in production.

‘An adventuring ground'

Herrera, of the pro-drilling Arctic Power group, said the country's real need for energy must be balanced against what he sees as a slight impact on the environment.

“You can go farther west on the northern slope of Alaska and find a giant caribou herd that is untouched,” he said. “Things go up and down anyway without the impact of man.”

Defenders of the refuge say its pristine nature would be fouled by oil exploration even if the ecological disturbance were minor.

Roger Kaye helps manage ANWR for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is the author of “Last Great Wilderness.” Even if caribou numbers don't decline the herds might become more tame and accustomed to humans.

In researching the establishment of the refuge, Kaye came to believe that it represents something quintessentially American.

“This was meant to be an adventuring ground,” he said. “It's a place for looking at how the world was before man changed it.”

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