Sonoma soundman Bernie Krause fears oil wells will ruin Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska

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Bernie Krause, who has recorded the howling of wolves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, can’t fathom the intrusion of oil wells along the environmentally sensitive area’s coast.

A globe-trotting soundscape ecologist who has recorded nature’s noises for a half century, Krause reels over the prospect of clawing fossil fuel from such a remote, pristine place, more than 3,000 miles north of Santa Rosa.

“It defies imagination, any rational thinking that you could do as a human being,” Krause, 80, said from his Sonoma Valley home Monday.

That’s precisely what the Republican tax bill of 2017 allowed in a little-known provision of the law.

Oil reserves on the Alaskan coastal plain have long been a pawn in the debate between the petroleum industry and conservationists. The industry asserts that tapping the reserves would reduce American dependence on foreign oil and possibly lower oil prices, while opponents say the environmental harm is incalculable and drilling may not yield much oil.

Last week, North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, joined by one Republican and 100 Democratic colleagues, introduced a measure that would repeal the oil and gas development allowed by the tax bill in the 20 million acre refuge in Alaska’s northeast corner.

“This is a bipartisan message that we must keep the drills out of this national treasure,” Huffman said in a statement. “Time is not on our side here: the Trump administration is in a hurry, so we need to immediately repeal this oil and gas giveaway to ensure that the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain remains unspoiled for future generations to experience and enjoy.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, the Republican vice chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said that serving as stewards of the environment is a calling “regardless of location, background or political ideology.”

“Protecting our nation’s open spaces and wild places unites us as Americans,” he said in a statement.

In reality, the refuge — known by its acronym ANWR — is a place so wild and remote it is never going to become a tourist destination, which Krause believes is the essence of its value.

He supports Huffman’s bill to prevent oil drilling in the area.

Krause, who has more than 5,000 hours of recordings from more than 1,100 habitats with about 15,000 individual “organism voices,” went to great pains, literally, to document its wild nature during his last visit to the refuge in 2006.

There is no easy way in or getting around the roadless expanse with no man-made trails, signs or facilities and a landscape so vast one could readily get lost without following one of the refuge’s many rivers, he said.

His group arrived on a charter flight on June 1 during the brief summer in which there is constant daylight. With the sun circling overhead instead of rising and setting, there was no way to use it for orientation, Krause said.

It was a hospitable 70 degrees when the crew landed, and four hours later it was 8 degrees with a snowstorm so harsh it blew down their tents.

Swarming mosquitoes and black flies proved more of a discomfort than the region’s large predators, including grizzly bears south of the Brooks Range, where Krause made camp, and the polar bears north of the range with peaks up to 9,000 feet.

The refuge also hosts caribou, Dall sheep, moose, muskoxen, lynx, foxes and wolverines among at least 46 species of mammals, plus 42 species of fish and more than 22 bird species.

“It’s one of the few places left in the world that’s truly wild,” Krause said. “It has an extraordinary amount of beauty and mystery to it.”

His team’s recordings captured howling wolves, but a sound that especially struck Krause was the song of robins, the reddish-breasted birds that are among the most common North American feathered species.

But to the Gwich’in native people, the robins were so unknown they had no word for them, Krause said.

Krause attributed the robins’ abundant presence to a warming climate, for lack of any other explanation, he said.

All around the world, he said, he has documented environmental change, noting that half of the soundscapes he has recorded no longer exist, radically altered by human activity or gone altogether silent. Krause said he’s unlikely to revisit the refuge, recalling how physically arduous the 2006 expedition was. Most of his natural recording is now done in Sonoma Valley, where Krause and his wife, Kat, are also trying to rebuild their home that was destroyed by the Nuns fire in 2017 It chills him to think the oil industry could spread east from Prudhoe Bay to the untouched coast of the preserve.

“I would use the term reckless,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457.

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