Environmentalists, development advocates plan visits to Arctic refuge

Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is either a flat, barren expanse of tundra, covered with snow and rimmed with ice nine months of the year or it's Alaska's Serengeti, braided with rivers and teeming with caribou, musk ox, migrating birds and polar bears.

Both sides in the fight over oil development in the refuge will be taking members of Congress, congressional staff, policy makers and journalists to visit the area in coming months in efforts to win support for their cause.

Which refuge those visitors see will depend on when they go and who's leading the tour.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, sponsored the bill that would open the refuge to oil exploration. Murkowski will lead a group of senators on a visit to the refuge at the end of March, when the coastal plain is an icy moonscape.

The timing makes perfect sense, says Murkowski spokesman Chuck Kleeschulte.

''That's what it looks like for most of the year and that's what it would look like when exploratory drilling would take place,'' Kleeschulte said.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, will be taking House members to visit the refuge during the congressional recess in August.

For environmentalists, the time to see the refuge is from late May to mid-July, when the Porcupine caribou herd migrates from western Canada to the calving grounds of the coastal plain.

The Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Alaska Wilderness League have, for the past few years, taken members of Congress on a camping trip to the refuge during the July 4th recess and will do so again this year.

''It's really not until folks who live in Washington D.C. disconnect from their cell phones and spend time on the tundra that they can understand the true meaning of wilderness,'' said Sarah Callaghan Chapell of the Sierra Club. ''We're able to watch flowers bloom, identify birds migrating through the area, perhaps catch a glimpse of a brown bear.''

Says Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League: ''This is not a steak-dinner-at-Prudhoe-Bay kind of trip. We're out there in the wilderness seeing the values and letting nature unfold before our eyes.''

While environmentalists focus on the movement of wildlife during their visits to the refuge, development advocates focus on the advances in drilling technology.

''We're not doing a camping trip,'' says Cam Toohey, the executive director of Arctic Power, a group lobbying to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

''We're going to Valdez and showing them the changes in the transportation of oil. We show them Prudhoe Bay, the Alpine, Badami and Endicott fields. We spend a full day in the coastal plain.''

Development advocates often include a stop in the village of Kaktovik on their tour. Kaktovik is an Inupiat Eskimo village and the only community located within the coastal plain. Most of the village's 240 residents support drilling in the refuge for the economic benefits it would bring.

Environmentalists usually include a visit with the Gwichin Athabascan Indians of Arctic Village, on the southern border of the refuge. The Gwichin Natives of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada are opposed to oil development in ANWR because it would take place in the caribou's calving grounds. The Gwichin have long relied on the Porcupine caribou herd for food and as a source of spiritual sustenance.

Those who support oil development in ANWR say new technology would minimize the impact of drilling on the land and the wildlife. Environmentalists say development would mean the loss of wilderness values.

While those on both sides of the ANWR debate can find little or no common ground on the issue, they agree that visits to the refuge win supporters.

''The product sells itself,'' said Toohey. ''I guarantee, you show it to them and we win more than we lose.''

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