Alaska at a crossroads

Two ancient places in Alaska are on the verge of massive change.

For centuries, caribou and salmon have migrated across plains and oceans to give birth where they were born. And humans have developed communities and livelihoods in their wake.

Now, rules made far away in Washington DC in the Trump era could change the land, the sea and the sky. And they are already pitting communities against each other.

Here’s what’s at stake.

The first battleground is in the far north of the state, in the largest national wildlife refuge in the country.

Map source:©HERE

Kaktovik is a hardscrabble town on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, in land designated as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

The area was first protected in 1960 and designated a refuge in 1980 to conserve animals and plants, continue to provide access for traditional hunters and gatherers and to protect water quality.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

Tens of thousands of caribou travel across the plains each year in the last great land migration in North America.

Cinematography by Florian & Salomon Schulz

Birds nest here before traveling to all 50 US states and beyond.

Cinematography by Florian & Salomon Schulz

The native Gwich’in people call the coastal plain “Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit” or “the sacred place where life begins.”

Cinematography by Florian & Salomon Schulz

Daniel Hayden, pilot for Wright Air Service

There are also believed to be massive oil and gas deposits of the kind that have made Alaska’s North Slope the economic driver of the state even as climate change caused by humans affects the land and sea around it.

Cinematography by Florian & Salomon Schulz

Until last year, drilling in ANWR was banned.

Then, to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s delight, a provision was added to the tax bill, opening part of the refuge to development. President Trump signed the bill into law.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Leases for drilling projects must now be offered by the government in the 1002 area on the coast, under which lie an estimated 7.7 billion barrels of oil.

Map source:©HERE

Nothing has been drilled yet, but just the debate has pitted tribe against tribe.

The Inupiaq live on the coast and want to treat their land as they see fit.

Charles Lampe, Kaktovik resident

The Inupiaq are angry at, again, being told what to do. Some also say they are left out of the debate in favor of a neighboring tribe, the Gwich’in.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

Allison Akootchook Warden, artist

Inland, in a place called Arctic Village, the Gwich’in people see their whole culture bound up with the caribou who cross the plains each year before heading to the coast to give birth.

They live off the herd, hunting for food, for their hides and using all parts of a kill.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

Bernadette Demientieff, Gwich’in Steering Committee

These Americans feel betrayed by their senator, Lisa Murkowski, and by Trump.

“He just scribbled his name over our culture.”

- Louie John, Arctic Village elder and former chief

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

Conservationists side with the Gwich’in and their desire to protect the caribou. They say the coastal plain is the “biological heart” of all of ANWR, with the most species diversity in the polar region.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club

Change is already here. A skinny, hungry polar bear has been coming closer and closer to Kaktovik looking for food. The airport is being moved inland in part because of rising seas and freak weather, signs of climate change. The question is what comes next.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

800 miles south of Kaktovik another great migration takes place each year.

Millions upon millions of fish come to the region every year, swimming to Bristol Bay and up rivers to spawn in the largest sockeye salmon run in the world.

NPS Video/T.Vaughn & L.Westcott

That attracts fishermen and women – who catch nearly half of the world’s wild sockeye harvest. Bears and other predators follow the salmon too, and, in their turn, they attract tourists.

Photo: National Park Service

But there are also reddish spots up in the hills – under which there are believed to be massive deposits of copper and gold.

And that is setting up a clash between two parts of Alaska’s heritage: fishing and mining.

The battle is coming together on Amakdedori Beach, which is coveted by both developers and conservationists.

The rocky beach at Amakdedori Bay is already a highway of sorts – for brown bears.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

360 video here

Point and drag to explore the scene as Bill Weir walks down the beach by Amakdedori Creek.

Drew Hamilton, Friends of McNeil River

But the bears and the moose could one day look out to see trucks and ships here.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

Along with the proposed Pebble Mine itself, an entire infrastructure network will be needed to get the ore out. Pipelines and roads would lead from a new port up into the mountains around Alaska’s largest lake.

Map source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The hills above Lake Iliamna contain the world’s largest ore body not currently in development, says Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership that is seeking to start mining.

The world needs copper for its modern way of life. There are fears that copper in the water or other pollution could affect the salmon run. But Collier says the Pebble Mine could extract the metal without harming the environment.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

Tom Collier, CEO of Pebble Partnership

The plans – once effectively put on hold by the Obama administration – are now being checked by the Army Corps of Engineers who will decide whether to issue permits to proceed.

And coincidentally or not, a new schedule has been set to decide the permits before the 2020 presidential election.

That’s much faster than usual. Pebble says the science has been done, so all that needs to happen is for it to be checked.

Opponents argue that the evidence is in, and it shows the mine complex would harm the environment and wildlife of this pristine wilderness.

Photo: Bill Weir/CNN

Dave Aplin, World Wildlife Fund

Story by Bill Weir, Julian Quiñones, Evelio Contreras and Rachel Clarke

Produced by Sean O'Key, Rachel Clarke, Marco Chacón and Curt Merrill

Wildlife cinematography courtesy Florian and Salomon Schulz

Read more: Inside Alaska's battles over land, sea and life