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The Trump administration will soon take a big step toward drilling oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It hopes to sell leases to oil companies before the end of this year. Now, this was a major reversal when Congress opened up the refuge a year and a half ago because, for decades, opponents have argued that drilling will harm the refuge's unique landscape, the caribou and birds who migrate there. But in the one village inside the refuge, many Alaska Natives see oil development as an opportunity. Nat Herz of Alaska's energy desk reports.
NAT HERZ, BYLINE: Perched on a bluff overlooking the Arctic Ocean, you can still see a mile-long shelf of ice hemming in Kaktovik. But Arctic sea ice has been melting, and that means more hungry polar bears are coming to Kaktovik, the only village along a 200-mile stretch of Alaska's North Slope. Twenty-four-year-old Nathan Gordon Jr. keeps watch from the seat of his four-wheeler.
NATHAN GORDON JR: Yeah. It's part of my job to make sure the town is safe and all visitors and polar bears at the same time.
HERZ: The Arctic Refuge's tundra and mountains surround Kaktovik. There are no roads in or out, and there's no oil infrastructure nearby. But Gordon's paycheck, it comes largely from the oil industry thanks to drilling in Prudhoe Bay to the west. Those property taxes from petroleum also paid for a $16 million new basketball gym and fund a full-time fire department. Residents also have flush toilets, which are lacking in dozens of other Alaska villages outside the refuge, often called ANWR. Gordon says oil has done a lot for Kaktovik and its native Inupiat residents.
GORDON: Yeah. People have been benefiting really great through all of this, and I am for ANWR, so opening ANWR, yeah, it'll be great for our kids, for the economy, for our village and everything that would go on. Yeah.
HERZ: Kaktovik's drilling boosters say their voices have long been ignored in the debate over the refuge, even though their ancestors have lived in the area for thousands of years. They still, though, want to make sure development doesn't jeopardize residents' ability to harvest caribou during the summer and whales every fall. At the end of the workday inside one of the town's two restaurants, I find Charles Lampe, a captain of one of the crews that hunts for whales offshore.
CHARLES LAMPE: We want to make sure that we have the voice to tell them where we hunt, where we fish, where we can, you know, the places where we know caribou congregate during the summertime or during their calving seasons.
HERZ: Other Kaktovik residents are less convinced that oil infrastructure can co-exist with their lifestyles. Carla Kayotuk an avid hunter and camper, and she says even living in a small village, she values the open spaces nearby.
CARLA KAYOTUK: When we get away, it's quiet right now, and I'm afraid once the development starts happening, that's not going to happen. Then where are we going to go?
HERZ: Kayotuk says speaking up can be intimidating here. She's been accused of ignoring benefits from oil that could come to the village.
KAYOTUK: We're not ignorant. We just - we value something different than what you value.
HERZ: It's still too early to know exactly how close oil infrastructure might come to Kaktovik. After a lease sale, companies will still have to drill wells to see if commercially viable amounts of oil even exist under this coastal plain. And then if they find it, they'll need environmental reviews and permitting before they can pump it out. From atop a bluff at the edge of town, Gordon the polar bear patroller looks out over the tundra to the west where he thinks the first development is likely. What does he think he'll see on the horizon once development starts?
GORDON: Nothing. You won't be able to see a footprint out there.
HERZ: It will take years to see if Gordon's prediction comes true. For NPR News, I'm Nat Herz in Kaktovik, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.