WASHINGTON (AP) -- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says declaring the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a national monument to keep away oil developers would be a meaningless gesture and he has urged President Clinton against doing so.
ANWR protection has gained a renewed urgency among environmentalists since President-elect Bush has targeted oil development in the refuge as a central part of his long-term energy plan.
Environmental groups have been lobbying the White House to try to get Clinton to declare the refuge a national monument, arguing that would head off attempts by Congress to open the refuge's coastal plain to oil and gas drilling.
But Babbitt in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press said he has recommended to the president that no such designation be considered for the arctic refuge, known commonly as ANWR.
''Monument designation doesn't add anything, absolutely nothing,'' said Babbitt during a conversation in his Interior Department office. ''It's a meaningless gesture. It adds no protection that isn't already there.''
Babbitt emphasized that he is ''passionately opposed to drilling'' in the refuge, which he frequently has compared with the African Serengeti because of its abundance of migrating birds, polar bears, musk ox, porcupine caribou, grizzly bears and other wildlife.
The 1.5 mile long coastal plain of the refuge is believed to have large oil reserves and Bush has said repeatedly that the oil can be developed while protecting the environment.
Environmentalists, as well as Babbitt, dispute that.
Babbitt's nominated successor at Interior, former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton, has made clear her support for drilling in the refuge as has Vice President Dick Cheney and incoming Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.
Last November, about 250 scientists urged Clinton to impose some additional safeguards to prevent drilling in the refuge. On Thursday, the Alaska Wilderness League said Bush's selection of Norton and Abraham ''leaves the refuge defenseless against a firing squad of oil drillers.''
But Babbitt said ANWR already is protected because it would require congressional action to open the refuge to oil development and that any such move would be strongly contested.
''We'll fight it. I guarantee you,'' he said.
Asked if a monument designation might make it more difficult for Congress to open the refuge to development, Babbitt said, ''No. I don't think so.''
Using the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, Clinton by executive order has created a dozen federal monuments this year, almost all of them on Babbitt's recommendation. Several years ago he angered Utah's governor and its congressmen by unilaterally creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
Monument designation provides increased protection against development. In the case of ANWR, such protection already is written into the law.
Babbitt said using the Antiquities Act to try to protect the Arctic refuge would be a mistake and could jeopardize the 1906 law itself.
''It raises the stakes,'' Babbitt said. ''It raises the issue of misuse of the act, or at least inappropriate use of the act.''
Babbitt said he has had a number of discussions with the president about the subject and recommended against any monument designation for the refuge. The White House also on several occasions has said such a move might be counterproductive.
Clinton in a recent interview on the Discovery Channel also expressed skepticism -- though not ruling it out altogether -- that such a tactic would be beneficial.
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