Find Wilderness, Development Balance

Opinion / Anchorage Daily News / March 22, 2004

Sara Chapell / Arthur Hussey

Recently, seven conservation organizations, including the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Sierra Club, challenged the Bush administration's oil and gas leasing plans for the 8.8 million-acre Northwest Planning Area in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. This lawsuit has given rise to the misperception that the conservation community is out to block oil development in the reserve. The Alaska conservation community was reluctant to litigate this case, and -- truth be told -- it didn't have to come to this.

As development advances west of the Colville River, we have worked hard to highlight the biologically critical areas that deserve permanent protection, even while additional lands within the reserve are opened for oil and gas leasing. In fact, Audubon Alaska conducted an 18-month study and identified five parts of the northwestern reserve that deserved special protection, leaving about 65 percent of the area with high oil and gas potential available for energy development. We recognize that oil and gas activities inside the reserve will expand, and we are not saying "no" to more leasing. What we are saying is that energy development in the reserve must include real, permanent protection for the most important wildlife habitats and subsistence-use areas.

Unfortunately, our concerns and the concerns of the nearly 100,000 Americans who submitted public comments to the Bureau of Land Management have fallen on deaf ears. Under BLM's recent plan for leasing in the northwestern reserve, not a single acre is given unequivocal protection as habitat for wildlife. Although a new "special area" has been established at Kasegaluk Lagoon and there are set-backs along the coasts and rivers, even these areas may be leased and explored, and environmental safeguards may be waived for economic reasons. A 10-year deferral on a 1.57 million-acre area at the western extreme of the reserve is so far from current infrastructure, it will take at least a decade for exploration to be remotely economical, and there are no assurances of protection beyond the temporary deferral. BLM also identified several areas for special studies on brant and caribou. More studies may be useful, but the wildlife in these areas need protection, not research, and we see no evidence that BLM is committing the money, manpower and political muscle needed in order for those studies to amount to more than a hill of beans.

At the same time, the administration is going back and revisiting its plans for the Northeast Planning Area, including possibly opening an area northeast of Teshekpuk Lake that was previously set aside specifically because of concerns about molting geese and caribou with calves. The Teshekpuk area is crucial to the health of the Teshekpuk caribou herd that many local people depend on for food. The changes BLM is proposing could severely impact this important resource. It would be more than a little ironic if Interior Secretary Gale Norton chooses to open for leasing an area that both Jim Watt and Bruce Babbitt, each during his time as secretary of the interior, agreed should be closed because of its value for wildlife! The conservation community has looked closely at the commitments BLM made in its 1998 Record of Decision on leasing in the northeastern reserve, and the agency's failure to fulfill its promises in fundamental ways gives us no confidence that it will do the job right in the northwestern reserve.

Despite industry and administration claims, the National Academy of Sciences has found that the real impacts of large-scale industrial development in America's Arctic reach far beyond the immediate footprint of oil field infrastructures. The past 35 years of oil development on the North Slope already has had lasting effects on people, wildlife and these spectacular landscapes, and over the next decade, the fate of the remaining wild areas will surely be determined.

We share a desire for a strong and prosperous Alaska in the 21st century. Alaska can be a model of how to preserve wildlife and wilderness and develop natural resources. Striking a balance to preserve that heritage will be good for all Alaskans. We don't need to sacrifice all of the special places in America's Arctic as development moves forward.

Sara Chapell is Sierra Club's regional representative. She lives in Haines. Arthur Hussey is the Northern Alaska Environmental Center's executive director in Fairbanks.

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