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Alaskans respond to ANWR decision

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- The Senate's vote on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration had Alaskans like Faith Gemmill on the edge of their seats Wednesday morning.

When the measure went down in defeat, the program coordinator for the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Fairbanks, said she got 78 e-mails of congratulations from environmentalist supporters across the country.

But the result had Kim Duke, executive director of Arctic Power, fuming. She's been lobbying for opening ANWR for 15 years.

Alaska once again watched its fate dealt with at the hands of policy makers across the country. Wednesday, in a 52-48 vote, the Senate approved an amendment stripping an oil drilling provision from a budget resolution expected to be approved later this week.

And once again, the reaction in Alaska was either elation or weary disheartenment.

''This was our big hope this year and it's just a huge disappointment, beyond frustrating,'' Duke said. She joined the nonprofit pro-drilling group in 1992, never thinking the job would last this long.

''But we're up against powerful environmentalist groups that are well financed,'' Duke said.

''It's just frustrating that people from outside are deciding for us up here. Who ought to know better how to do oil production up here than ourselves?''

For the Natives of the Interior, opening ANWR means a threat to the Porcupine caribou herd and the culture of the Gwich'in people, Gemmill said.

''Any disruption up there would threaten our way of life,'' she said. ''I think the vote shows there are still some people who hold a strong vision for humanity.''

At the center of the debate, literally, are the 260 residents of Kaktovik, an Inupiat Native village on a coastal barrier island in the refuge. About three-quarters of them support drilling in ANWR because they hope the money from oil will improve village life, said Mayor Lon Sonsalla. The state's current fiscal troubles extend to the local government level, meaning boroughs, towns and villages are all facing budget cuts.

But after Wednesday's Senate vote, Sonsalla said most village residents were matter-of-fact about the issue.

''You couldn't say anyone around here was exactly holding their breath,'' Sonsalla said. ''We haven't been holding our breath for 15 years now.''

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., characterized Wednesday's vote as the defeat of drilling supporters' best shot this congressional session. But Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is still holding hope that his ANWR provisions in a House bill will stay intact.

Still, it would put the question in the same position it faced last year when the Senate couldn't muster 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

''But this question is not just going to go away,'' Young told The Associated Press late Wednesday, reiterating the argument that the U.S. needs to reduce its dependence on foreign sources of oil. ''When we get into Iraq, a lot of these people who've been opposing us are going to be facing some heat.''

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was clearly angry at being unable to push the measure through, despite his considerable clout as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

''People who vote against this today are voting against me and I will not forget,'' Stevens declared on the floor.

Afterward, he said, ''You bet your bottom dollar I'll remember. If I ever give my word, I keep it. I'm mad enough to eat nails right now, to have people not keep their word to me.''

Stevens' spokesman, Melanie Alvord, said the senator would not say who had not kept their word.

Most Alaska elected officials favor opening the refuge to drilling.

Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, who spent 22 years in the U.S. Senate battling to open the refuge, abruptly interrupted a morning news conference to take a call to shore up the support of Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Akaka voted for drilling in the end, but that was not enough.

Murkowski agreed with other observers that it will be much harder to muster the 60 votes it would take to open the refuge through an energy bill than through the budget resolution. Unlike legislation, a budget resolution cannot be filibustered.

''This was the best chance for a simple majority to prevail,'' Murkowski said. ''On the other hand, what events may unfold as a consequence of the conflict in Iraq are unforeseeable at this time, and there may be an opportunity to revisit this.''

Deborah Williams, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, was thrilled at what she saw as a decisive victory.

''What this vote demonstrated,'' Williams said, ''is that even under single-party rule that there are a sufficient number of enlightened Republicans who care about representing their constituents correctly on this issue that the Senate will never vote in favor of opening the refuge.''

Democrat leaders in the state Legislature said they were disappointed with the vote. But they used it to criticize Murkowski for pinning his hopes on projects that are out of the state's control to bring in the money to solve the state's fiscal woes.

''That ANWR vote heightens the importance of us taking the initiative to solve our own problems,'' said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, said there may be a silver lining to the vote. Having denied Alaska this issue, he said Congress may be more willing to cooperate on votes affecting other industries important to the state, such as natural gas, fishing and timber.



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