Nation & World

ANWR coastal plain is topic of debate for Alaskans

A battle over whether the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be set aside as wilderness — or eventually opened up for oil exploration — brought dozens of people with polar-opposite views to a public hearing in Anchorage on Wednesday.

On the table is a proposal to expand the wilderness designation that already protects a large chunk of ANWR to cover the potentially oil-rich coastal plain. That would add another 1.4 million acres of wilderness to the existing eight million acres in the refuge -- and some say would effectively put drilling off-limits. Other options being considered would add even more wilderness.

Wilderness supporters say the designation is essential to preserving a place some Alaska Native people call sacred and that others say is a wild land too unique to ever be developed. But opponents say it would lock up land that could become Alaska's next big drilling mecca, hurting efforts to create high-paying jobs, generate revenue for government and bring new life to an oil industry in decline. All that would be off-limits if the land were wilderness, opponents say.

A different slice of the long-running debate took place in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Alaska's U.S. senators, congressman and governor all testified before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in support of drilling on the refuge's coastal plain.

The controversy over drilling in ANWR has divided environmentalists and development forces for decades. As a compromise when the refuge was created in 1980, the coastal plain was set aside for study of oil development and other parts were declared wilderness.

Even without the wilderness label on the coastal plain, drilling would require specific congressional approval. While the U.S. House has backed drilling a number of times, only once, in 1995, did an ANWR-drilling measure clear both the House and Senate, and then-President Clinton vetoed it.

On the flip side, Congress also would have to sign off on any new wilderness designation, which is what was being debated in Anchorage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is updating and revising its comprehensive conservation plan that guides management of the entire refuge, not just the coastal plain.

None of the options that the Fish and Wildlife Service is floating include oil and gas development. That's because the purpose of the refuge, as laid out in federal law, does not include such development, said refuge manager Richard Voss.

The refuge is supposed to preserve unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values, conserve fish and wildlife populations, ensure subsistence and preserve water quality, under the law.

The wilderness areas should be places of solitude and adventure "governed by the rhythms of nature and less by the hand of man," Voss said.

Dozens came to the Fish and Wildlife Service public hearing at Loussac Library.

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