A question for the new millennium: When there is no paper, is there still a paper trail? Answer: Not unless you vacuum the Internet and print the download. Which is what Caroline Kennedy at the Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife did in early January, right before George W. Bush took office.

“I felt kind of paranoid about archiving the site,” said Kennedy, until she checked again three weeks later, just after Bush assumed office.

Under President Clinton, the US Fish and Wildlife Service website had documented how oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would devastate the local environment and adversely impact Native peoples. The Bush Administration, however, had made a campaign issue of its enthusiastic support for oil exploitation in the arctic sanctuary for polar bears, snow geese, musk oxen and vast herds of migrating caribou.

When Kennedy looked at the revamped site, she found that the scientific evidence was less conclusive. “They watered it down,” she said, “to paint a rosier picture of the impact of oil drilling.”

Unlike hard documents that can be collected through Freedom of Information Act requests or ferreted from musty files, postings on the web are as insubstantial as the Internet itself. They exist only as long as they float in cyberspace, and they vanish forever like a cloud on a summer day. New versions not only disappear the past, they rewrite the present.

Rachel Levin, a US Fish and Wildlife spokesperson in Washington, said that Alaska altered the site “on their own initiative.”

“There was no communication between DC and the Refuge specifically requesting anything be taken down,” Levin said. “They made changes to make it a more neutral, informational site.”

Officials at the Alaska Fish and Wildlife regional office also say they revised the website without any instructions from Washington.

Anne Morekill, acting deputy refuge manager in Anchorage, defended the alterations as “just wordsmithing. It didn’t read quite right before. We just wanted to tighten it up.” After being presented with specific examples she added, “We changed value- laden words like ‘destroy’ to ‘impact.’ ”

Karen Boylan, assistant director of regional affairs at the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Service, says her agency was “not directly intimidated by the Administration.”

But the Alaska office would have had to be snowblind not to see the website–and the refuge itself–as a provocative target in the sights of the new Interior Department. In her previous stint at the Reagan Interior Department under James Watt, new Secretary Gale Norton had vigorously advocated opening ANWR to oil company exploration.

With a finger to the changing political winds, the Alaska office held a series of meetings and, after circulating drafts of the new text, implemented a strategy of pre-emptive surgery: Amputate the most inflammatory parts of the website before Washington hacked out its heart.

“We made an honest attempt to keep [the website] below the radar screen…. We took down conclusions that were inconsistent with the new Administration,” Boylan said, but “left the evidence for people to draw their own conclusions. Conclusions are not part of sound science.”

Reluctant to admit that they censored the site to ward off political pressure, the Alaska officials fall back on “sound science”–a buzz phrase with which Washington justifies everything from not cutting allowable levels of arsenic in the drinking water and C02 emissions to insisting that Europe buy America’s hormone-laced beef.

Defenders of Wildlife argues that the conclusions on the Clinton- era web page that drilling will “destroy,”disrupt,” diminish” and “damage” the environment are not simply opinions. They are based on rigorous environmental impact studies; and the fact that their accuracy cannot be irrefutably proven unless drilling actually goes ahead and wreaks havoc is no reason to dismiss them.

The changes on the website, Defenders of Wildlife asserts, had far more to do with politics than science. But as the current controversy shows in black and white, the two are inseparable.

Some examples:

GONE COMPLETELY

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most pristine unit in the National Wildlife System.

Oil and gas exploration and development in the Refuge would permanently and irreversibly:

§ Destroy the unique wildland values of a world-class natural area.

§ Disrupt ecological and evolutionary processes in one of the most pristine conservation areas in the North American Arctic.

§ Diminish the Refuge’s scientific value as a benchmark for understanding these processes.

§ Damage the biological and ecological integrity of the entire Refuge.

While the Bush Administration argues that the seasonal nature of drilling would mitigate environmental effects, the Clinton-era site noted:

If sufficient amounts of oil were found, drilling would occur year-round from permanent gravel pads and oil would be transported by pipelines feeding into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System at Prudhoe Bay.

Both sites said:
135 species of birds are known to use the 1002 Area, including numerous shorebirds, waterfowl, loons, songbirds, and raptors.

But the Bush site dropped the following sentence:

Oil development in the Arctic Refuge would result in habitat loss, disturbance, and displacement or abandonment of important nesting, feeding, molting and staging areas.

(Asked if she had any doubt that the excised text was accurate, Boylan responded: “No doubt whatsoever.”)

The Clinton version continues:

One species of bird that could be greatly impacted by oil development is the snow goose.

The Bush version substitutes:

One notable example is snow geese.

Then, after a few sentences on the habits of snow geese, the Clinton version notes:

Oil exploration and development would displace snow geese from areas that are critically important to them.

The later version omits that conclusion, despite considerable scientific testimony to the contrary.

The Clinton version refers to the “damage” caused by seismic exploration, which sends sound waves into the ground. The later version refers to the “amount of impact” and omits the following:

Seismic exploration programs are intrusive and leave footprints…. Some sites will take decades to recover, if ever.

The Clinton version says:

The effects of oil field development in the Arctic Refuge would extend far beyond the “footprint” of gravel pads and roads, and would cause many cumulative impacts including: blocking, deflecting or disturbing wildlife, resulting in decreased numbers of wildlife in the area

The Bush version substitutes:

Cumulative biological consequences of oil field development that may be expected in the Arctic Refuge include: blocking, deflecting or disturbing wildlife

In its list of consequences, the Bush version also omits a direct reference to the impact on fisheries and deletes the statement that:

increased freezing depths of rivers and lakes as a result of water extraction (for ice road and pad construction and for oil well re-injection), kills overwintering fish and aquatic invertebrates

The Bush version excises the whole section on conclusions, preferring not to comment on the likely consequences of oil exploration.

Though few in number, these examples of the way that the US Fish and Wildlife Service site has been modified offer a telling look at both the new Administration’s ecological priorities and the way that “official” information is so quickly and easily politicized. The Bush site even felt the need to omit a testimonial from one of the most prominent Supreme Court Justices of the last century:

This last American living wilderness must remain sacrosanct…. This is–and must forever remain–a roadless, primitive area where all food chains are unbroken, where the ancient ecological balance provided by nature is maintained.
          –Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a founder of the Refuge