Maps matter. They chronicle the struggles of empires and zoning boards. They chart political compromise. So it was natural for Republican Congressional aides, doing due diligence for what may be the last battle in the fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to ask for the legally binding 1978 map of the refuge and its coastal plain.
It was gone. No map, no copies, no digitized version.
The wall-size 1:250,000-scale map delineated the tundra in the biggest national land-use controversy of the last quarter-century, an area that environmentalists call America’s Serengeti and that oil enthusiasts see as America’s Oman.
The map had been stored behind a filing cabinet in a locked room in Arlington, Va. Late in 2002, it was there. In early 2003, it disappeared. There are just a few reflection-flecked photographs to remember it by.
All this may have real consequences. The United States Geological Survey drew up a new map. On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee passed a measure based on the new map that opened to drilling 1.5 million acres of coastal plain in the refuge.
The missing map did not seem to include in the coastal plain tens of thousands of acres of Native Alaskans’ lands. On the new map, those lands were included, arguably making it easier to open them to energy development.
The measure is scheduled to be in the budget reconciliation bill to be voted on next month.
“People have asked me several times, ‘Do you think someone took this intentionally?’ ” said Doug Vandegraft, the cartographer for the Fish and Wildlife Service who was the last known person to see the old map. “I hope to God not. So few people knew about it. I’m able to sleep at night because I don’t think it was maliciously taken. I do think it was thrown out.”
Mr. Vandegraft said he had folded the map in half, cushioned within its foam-board backing, and put it behind the filing cabinet in the locked room for safekeeping.
He said he was distraught when he learned of the loss. In its place in the original nook, he said, he found a new, folded piece of foam board similar to the old one – but with no map attached.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” he said. “I queried everyone here. I think people could tell that I was angry about it.”
No one admitted knowing what had happened.
“It infuriated me,” he said. “It was in no one’s way. Why would someone take it on themselves to say no one needs this?
“No one knew where the foam-core boards came from.”
The implications of the contours on the new map, at least for the native lands, are in dispute. Some people argue that the native owners, the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, which controls much of the surface rights to the land, and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which controls the mineral rights, would be able to offer energy leases no matter where the lines are drawn, as soon as Congress opens the plain.
The legislative counsel of the Interior Department, Jane M. Lyder, did not go quite that far, but did say the new map might make the question moot.
“It’s a very circular kind of thing,” Ms. Lyder said. “Changing the line on the map makes it a lot easier.”
In addition, she said, the inclusion of the native lands within the coastal plain ensures that they will be covered by the bill’s requirement that no more than 2,000 acres of the plain be used for drilling platforms, airstrips, roads and other surface disturbances. By including the native lands in the plain, any work there would count to the 2,000-acre limit, she said.
Mr. Vandegraft, the cartographer, said the experience had changed his habits.
“Anything I considered historic, we scanned them and took them to the National Archives,” he said.
New York Times