WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Clinton will leave office this month without making the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a national monument, the White House announced Wednesday.
''We believe, after consulting with our environmental team, that ANWR has something that some of the other areas we looked at does not have, ... legislative protective status, which is higher than that conferred to monuments,'' White House spokesman Jake Siewert said.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had said last week that giving monument status to ANWR would be a meaningless gesture and he recommended that President Clinton not do so.
While the announcement from the White House Wednesday was not a surprise, it pleased those who support drilling in ANWR and disappointed those who want to see the coastal plain protected from drilling.
''I think Alaskans are relieved that the threat of a unilateral presidential action at the midnight hour is not going to stand in the way of the public process that Congress has in determining whether or not there will be drilling,'' Gov. Tony Knowles said.
The 120-mile-long coastal plain is believed to have large oil reserves in addition to an abundance of migrating birds, polar bears, musk oxen, caribou, grizzly bears and other wildlife.
President-elect Bush has made drilling in the reserve a major part of his proposed energy plan.
Environmentalists have pressed Clinton to declare monument status for the coastal plain to ensure its permanent protection from oil development. ''This administration did miss an opportunity to do something that would have been legally and symbolically significant. But we believe that the American people strongly support protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and we intend to work very hard to ensure that its protected status is not changed by a new administration,'' said Deborah Williams, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation.
Using the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, Clinton has created a dozen federal monuments by executive order in recent weeks.
Monument designation provides increased protection against development. Siewert said such protection already is written into law for the ANWR in the form of legislation from the Carter administration which specifically prevents oil drilling without approval from Congress.
Lawmakers can enact legislation to allow development, but ''it would be very hard to open it up to drilling given the narrow split that exists in Congress,'' Siewert said.
The Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with Cheney's constitutional tie-breaking vote as the Senate's presiding office the only difference. The GOP commands a small majority in the House.
If the president gave out monument status, the next president alone could try to reverse it, Siewert said. This way, ''They're going to have to go through Congress to do it, and we don't think Congress would be wise to open that area to drilling,'' he said.
On the Net: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.r7.fws.gov/nwr/arctic/arctic.html
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