Debate of ANWR drilling draws tourists to the refuge

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is fueling a surge in tourism in the refuge this summer.

Tourists are anxious for a glimpse of the refuge's famed caribou migration and wealth of wildlife, according to wilderness guides. Although many outfitters have more than doubled the number of trips to the refuge, they're still not keeping pace with demand.

''We're turning people away,'' said Carol Kasza, co-owner of ArcticTreks. Kasza said she and her husband are taking more visitors to the refuge this season than they have during the 20 years they've run the Fairbanks-based business.

Nearly 70 percent more tourists are expected to visit the refuge this summer compared with last year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge.

While the number of expected visitors on guided trips -- 591 -- is minuscule compared with the number of visitors to Alaska's more popular attractions, outfitters say refuge tourism is robust and growing.

Some tourists visit the refuge independently, but the government doesn't track those numbers.

''I would normally do about four trips to the refuge a summer. This year I'm personally guiding six and I have five more trips being guided by others,'' said Karen Jettmar, owner of Equinox Wilderness Expeditions in Anchorage.

Politics is driving the boom, according to guides, clients and the refuge's federal manager.

''When Bush was campaigning for the presidency, he made it very clear that he intended to drill in ANWR,'' said Amy Gulick, 36, a free-lance writer and photographer from the Seattle area who plans to visit the refuge in June. ''My husband and I figured this may be our last chance to see this place undisturbed.''

Julie Lams, a retired nurse practitioner from Sandpoint, Idaho, said the recent push for drilling in the refuge leaves her infuriated and ready to travel north.

''I'm really pissed at Bush. I'll put up with the mosquitoes,'' said Lams, 66.

Tourism to the coastal plain also spiked in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Congress was considering legislation that would have authorized drilling, according to figures provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1990, 886 guided tourists spent time in ANWR. Two years earlier, just 362 visited, the federal agency says.

The typical 10-day trip to ANWR can involve canoeing down a river that starts in the Brooks Range and flows to the Arctic Ocean, or backpacking on the tundra, or day hiking from a basecamp. The expeditions generally cost $2,000 to $3,000, guides say, including food and airfare from Fairbanks.

''It's costing me a fortune. More than my trip to Antarctica. But it's worth it,'' Lams said.

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