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
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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