ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The presidential election stalemate is blocking any action on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Just a few months ago, environmentalists were imagining a scenario where the nation had elected a new president, Congress had adjourned for the year and President Clinton had declared ANWR a national monument on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Alaska Lands Act.
Instead, the country hasn't elected a president, Congress returns to work this week locked in a bitter fight with the Clinton administration over a number of spending bills and Saturday's ANILCA anniversary came and went with nothing from the White House about a monument designation.
The refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain is considered a good prospect for oil strikes. It also is the prime calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd. It became a major economic, environmental and political cause over the past decade.
Mary Hanley, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said there are some concerns that a refuge monument designation might push Congress into repealing the Antiquities Act that authorizes presidents to issue such designations.
The longer the election recounts and court cases drag on, the less time President Clinton has to weigh a monument designation before leaving office on Jan. 20.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he's heard rumors that the president plans to do something with ANWR before leaving office. He thinks Clinton might want to wait until he knows whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a drilling proponent, or drilling opponent Vice President Al Gore becomes president.
''I've done my best to plead with (Clinton) not to do it,'' Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News. ''But with the election not being over, I don't see the necessity for the president to do it.''
A monument designation also is not likely while Congress is in session, because the White House would risk retaliation from Alaska's three committee chairmen -- especially Stevens, who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But with six spending bills still unsettled this year and the new Congress set to begin Jan. 3, there's not much time for the president to act free from threat of a swift congressional reaction.
''There's some interesting dynamics occurring that no one could have imagined in their wildest imaginations,'' said Cam Toohey, executive director of Arctic Power, a leading pro-drilling advocacy group.
While the development lobby is delighted to have dodged a bullet thus far, Toohey said it was apprehensive about the coming weeks.
''Congress could adjourn on the 15th of January, and Clinton could designate the refuge on the 16th,'' Toohey said. ''Let's face it: If the president has a desire, he'll figure out a way to do it.''
Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League said that a year ago, environmentalists were hopeful about a monument designation on Dec. 2.
That was when President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law in 1980, setting aside about 104 million acres of federal lands in the state as wildlife refuges, national parks and forests, and protected wilderness areas.
When Carter was in Anchorage in August to celebrate the approaching anniversary, he boosted the environmentalists' hopes when he called upon Clinton to issue the monument designation.
''We're not really frustrated,'' Kolton said of the current state of affairs.
The November elections may be holding up a monument designation now, he said, but they've also resulted in an evenly divided Senate next year.
''We don't believe the Alaska delegation will be able to get a drilling bill through next year, whether it's a national monument or not,'' Kolton said.
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