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Arctic Paradise Not Lost Yet

 

Jeanne Klobnak-Ball / Planet Jackson Hole / April 16, 2005

Omingmak, "the bearded ones," gather together. Prehistoric survivors of a bygone ice age, they form a protective circle around their young, sharp horns lowered, ready should predators prove bold enough to attack.

"three pro-oil Democrats were enough to give President Bush the one vote needed to win what amounts to perhaps his only publicly stated "energy plan" goal..."But the muskoxen's ancient, effective defense won't stop modern greed, gluttony, arrogance and ignorance from despoiling the Arctic's wild yet fragile coastal plain. It won't stop sprawling infrastructure, toxic spills and the incongruous imprint that only industrial man can instigate. So say conservationists.

By a 51-49 vote, the U.S. Senate last month rejected an attempt by pro-conservation Democrats and GOP moderates to remove a covertly attached Arctic refuge drilling provision from next year's federal budget. Although seven Republicans voted against the measure, three pro-oil Democrats were enough to give President Bush the one vote needed to win what amounts to perhaps his only publicly stated "energy plan" goal. Bush called tapping the reserve's oil a critical part of the nation's energy security and a way to reduce America's reliance on imported oil, which account for more than half of the 20 million barrels of crude use daily. It's "a way to get some additional reserves here at home on the books," Bush said.

But Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a co-sponsor of the amendment that would have stripped the Arctic refuge provision from the budget document, said, "We won't see this oil for 10 years. It will have minimal impact." It is "foolish to say oil development and a wildlife refuge can coexist," she said.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) argued that more oil would be saved if Congress enacted an energy policy focusing on conservation, more efficient cars and trucks, and increased reliance on renewable fuels. "The fact is [drilling in ANWR] is going to be destructive," said Kerry.

Attaching the widely unpopular drilling provision as a budget "rider" allowed drilling supporters to avoid democracy's untidy business of public hearings, committee consideration and, importantly, Senate filibusters, which blocked repeated past attempts to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to development. Now awaiting "reconciliation" between the Senate and overwhelmingly pro-drilling House of Representatives, the bill's passage would lift the existing congressional prohibition against drilling in the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain.

In recent years, pro-oil Senate Republicans lacked the 60 votes necessary to stop an ANWR filibuster, whereby a bill is literally talked to death.

Reconciliation bills, however, are not subject to filibuster. Some Washington insiders say dissention over Medicaid could inadvertently kill the budget reconciliation bill, thereby leaving in place the coastal plain's protective status.

Deeply angered by the Senate's budget tactics, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) plans "to organize a consumer boycott of any oil company that decides to drill in this pristine Alaskan wilderness area." Boxer urges, "If, through our pocketbooks, we can convince these companies to do the right thing, we can still save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the destruction that would be wrought by oil drilling rigs."

Boxer also is soliciting a national petition urging citizens to "tell Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist that any Republicans who vote to open up the Alaska wilderness to oil drilling will pay a price in the next election."

Arctic Power

Arctic Power, the organization "committed to securing congressional and presidential approval of legislation opening ANWR's coastal plain to responsible oil development," won't likely be joining Boxer's boycott, nor the 31,294 Americans who have signed her petition.

While conservationists decry development of North America's equivalent of Africa's Serengeti - pointing to scientific studies indicating harm would come to calving caribou, polar bear, migratory birds and other species - Arctic Power's oil industry supporters have maneuvered for more than two decades to get access to the oil beneath ANWR's coastal plain.

With a membership comprised of resource extraction, petroleum, development, transportation and support industry and other primarily Alaska-based interests, Arctic Power argues "only" ANWR's 1.5 million acre coastal plain (8 percent of the refuge's 19 million acres) is subject to potential development. With advanced technology, less than 2,000 acres, less than half a percent of ANWR, would be affected by production activity, they claim.

But along Alaska's coast, the highest density of polar bear land dens occurs within this controversial area. Many more dens have been found here than would be expected if bears denned uniformly along the coast, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And muskoxen, the only animals who live yearround on the coastal plain, might consider those 2,000 acres in the middle of their living room important, especially since they share it with a significant population of the world's largest land predators, polar bears. And 123,000 caribou, wolves, fox, lynx, 30 other land mammal species, and more than 160 migratory and resident bird species.

Even so, Arctic Power argues that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created, billions of dollars generated in economic activity, and billions more tossed into federal coffers from bonus bids, lease rentals, royalties and taxes if drilling occurs. Disagreements prevail between the White House and certain congressional members about just how much revenue will actually accrue, but jobs and economic growth, however temporary and uncertain, are nevertheless like motherhood and apple pie. And, let's face it, conserving resources has nothing to do with being "conservative" these days.

Besides, ANWR offers "America's best possibility for the discovery of another giant 'Prudhoe Bay-sized' oil and gas discovery," says Arctic Power. (Don't ask why we can't locate America's best possibility for, say, a Tornado Alley-sized wind power discovery.) One does tire of the woe-is-me element to Arctic Power's argument - "north slope production in decline," "imported oil too costly" - as if wreaking havoc on the North American continent's last great expanse of wild, Arctic ecological diversity is worth six months of oil. Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the oil won't be available for at least 10 years anyway, hardly solving price shock at the pump or getting our troops out of harm's way any time soon.

Biological opinions to the contrary, Arctic Power claims development would render "no negative impact on animals." The Central Arctic Caribou Herd, which migrates though Prudhoe Bay, has grown from 3,000 to 32,000 animals, they note as evidence. But could this have anything to do with wolf exterminations carried out by helicopter-borne sharpshooters? Or might it be due to lower mosquito numbers?

The Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which exists entirely north of the Arctic Circle, is an intact continuum of six different ecological zones spanning some 200 miles north to south. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, "Such a diverse spectrum of habitats and associated fish and wildlife populations within a single conservation area is unparalleled in the circumpolar north."

Containing remote, complete and undisturbed lands across lagoons, beaches and coastal marine salt marshes; coastal plain tundra; Brooks Range alpine tundra; a forest-tundra transition south of the mountains; and, tall boreal forest spruce, birch, and aspen, much of the refuge north of the mountains incorporates the 1.5 million acre coastal plain (referred to as the 1002 Area). The physical and biological components of this area are unique compared to the rest of northern Alaska.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the relative compactness of habitats in ANWR's coastal plain provides for a greater degree of ecological diversity than any other similar sized area of Alaska's north slope. Named for the major river within its range, the Porcupine caribou herd uses a refuge area the size of Wyoming, as well as habitat in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The animals winter in the southern portion of their range, where they are an important resource for the Gwich'in people. Calling themselves "People of the Caribou," the Gwich'in derived most of their sustenance from the animals: food, skins for their clothing, bedding and shelter, the bones from which they fashioned fishhooks, skin scrapers and other tools. The Gwich'in oppose any ANWR development.

ANWR's coastal plain comprises only 10 percent of the refuge, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, yet "from May to July, it is the center of biological activity. For centuries, the Porcupine caribou herd have used the coastal tundra to calve, obtain nourishment, avoid insects, and escape predators."

By early June, the agency says, pregnant females reach calving areas and give birth. "Shortly thereafter, most, and often all, of the herd joins the cows and calves to forage on the refuge's coastal plain. In late June and early July, when hordes of mosquitos hatch, the caribou gather in huge groups numbering in the tens of thousands. Seeking relief from the insects, they move along the coast, onto ice fields, and to uplands in the Brooks Range."

Hmmm.

Commonly, one-half to three-quarters or more of the calves are born within ANWR's "half a percent" that would be subject to extensive development. "Hunted by local residents, chased by predators, harassed by insects, challenged by river crossings, and faced with difficult terrain and weather, the Porcupine herd confronts many hardships," Fish and Wildlife says. "Yet it thrives, every summer staging a magnificent wildlife spectacle on the arctic coastal plain." What shall be their fate?

- klobnak@planetjh.com