ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The 23 million acres designated as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska should be ''cherished as a long-term bequest of nature'' and studied for possible wilderness protection, according to a new environmental group.
''By all rights it should be the 'National Wilderness Reserve-Alaska,''' the Campaign for America's Wilderness said in promotional materials distributed to reporters Monday. The vast area sits to the west of the existing oil-production complex of Prudhoe Bay.
''Heavens. 'Wilderness reserve,''' Drue Pearce, Alaska adviser to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, murmured when told of the name suggestion.
It seems, she said, that the group has forgotten the area's history. President Harding set the land aside in 1923 as a potential oil source for the Navy.
As production falls in other areas of the North Slope, interest in NPR-A has increased.
Last year, Phillips Alaska Inc., now part of ConocoPhillips, announced it had discovered significant oil and gas deposits there.
In May, government geologists increased their estimate of the amount of oil it contains, concluding that the reserve has 1.3 billion to 5.6 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil, assuming prices of $22 to $30 a barrel.
The Interior Department is planning a major lease sale next year.
Mike Matz, director of the new group, said the area is important to raptors, caribou and other wildlife. ''Tens of millions of waterfowl migrate here,'' he said.
The Campaign for America's Wilderness is not proposing that the government designate all of NPR-A a wilderness but rather that it evaluate the many ecosystems within it for possible protection, said Tim Mahoney, the organization's lobbyist.
In particular, environmentalists point to the wetlands of the Teshekpuk Lake area near the northeast corner of the reserve as very important to birds, including snowy owls, tundra swans, yellow-billed loons, Pacific black brant, and Steller's and spectacled eiders.
Government geologists say the area of the reserve that looks most promising for oil lies to the south of the lake area, perhaps slightly overlapping the wetlands' southern border.
''For once, generally speaking, the most sensitive environmental area does not correspond to the area of greatest oil expectation, in our opinion,'' said David Houseknecht of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Matz, the group's director, is a veteran of the Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center and a founder of the Alaska Wilderness League.
He would not say how much money his new group has to work with or where its money comes from, saying both are in flux. The organization has 10 full-time employees, he said. The only funding source he identified was the Alaska Conservation Foundation. The board includes leaders from other environmental groups: Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society.
NPR-A is one of six areas in five states the group has selected as illustrations of what it says are unprotected wildernesses.
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