WASHINGTON (AP) -- About 250 scientists urged President Clinton to impose safeguards against oil drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and ''ensure the conservation of this unique arctic ecosystem.''
In a letter to Clinton, the scientists said Wednesday that ''five decades of biological studies and scientific research have confirmed'' the need to protect the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain from development.
Clinton has opposed congressional efforts to allow drilling in the refuge in the northeastern corner of Alaska. Many environmentalists have urged him in recent months to make the refuge's coastal strip a protected monument before he leaves the White House, but White House officials have insisted no such action is under discussion.
Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee to succeed Clinton, strongly opposes oil drilling in the refuge. His GOP rival, Gov. George W. Bush, has said opening the refuge to oil development would be a major part of his energy strategy. Bush has argued that drilling can be conducted without harming the refuge's ecosystem or wildlife.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the refuge's coastal plain may hold about 11 billion barrels of oil, about as much as the Prudhoe Bay field 50 miles to the west, with about 80 percent of that economically recoverable.
Environmentalists argue development of the oil would jeopardize the coastal plain's wildlife, including 130 species of migrating birds; thousands of porcupine caribou that give birth to their young there in summer; and polar bears, musk oxen and grizzly bears.
In Wednesday's letter to Clinton, the scientists said the coastal plain is a ''vital component of the biological diversity of the refuge'' and warrants the same protection as other areas of the 19-million-acre refuge already set aside as protected wilderness.
While the scientists said they were not philosophically opposed to oil and gas development in Alaska, they wrote: ''Based on our collective experience and understanding of the cumulative effects of oil and gas development on Alaska's North Slope, we do not believe these impacts have been adequately considered'' when it comes to the refuge.
The letter-writing effort was organized by the Alaska office of the National Audubon Society and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
Among scientists endorsing the letter were 60 from Alaska and 25 from Canada. The scientists included Edward Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist from Harvard; and Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, a leading biologists and author of the 1968 book ''The Population Bomb.''
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of Congress' most vocal proponents for drilling in the refuge, said most of the scientists probably had never visited the refuge. Referring to Ehrlich, Murkowski said, ''He predicted that oil supplies would be gone by the year 2000.''
Murkowski said it's a ''myth'' to say that oil can't be developed in the refuge without hurting the ecosystem and wildlife, especially with new, less intrusive drilling technology.
Oil has been pumped in Prudhoe Bay for 30 years, said Murkowski, and the caribou have thrived.
''They're not shot at. They're not run down by snowmobiles,'' he said, and the polar bears ''walk the pipeline because it's warm.''
On the Net: Arctic Power, pro-development Arctic National Wildlife Reserve lobbying group: http://www.anwr.org
Alaska Wilderness League: http://www.alaskawild.org
Energy Information Administration: http://www.eia.doe.gov
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