Natives hope Bush presidency will mean jobs on Arctic tundra

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- The village of Kaktovik lies on the flat, frozen tundra of the Arctic coast, thousands of miles from the courtrooms of Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

But Kaktovik's 238 residents, most of them Inupiat Eskimos, kept a close watch on the seesawing presidential contest.

''We have cable TV and we watch CNN,'' said Alfred Linn Jr., president of the village tribal council.

Theirs is more than a passing interest.

Kaktovik is the only community within the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President-elect George W. Bush has said opening the area to oil exploration and development would be a major part of his energy strategy. Vice President Gore strongly opposed such activity in the refuge.

Linn voted for Bush. Like most Kaktovik residents, he supports oil development in the coastal plain for the economic benefits it could bring to this isolated community, where unemployment is at about 30 percent.

Most of the 19 million-acre refuge is off-limits to development. But the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain is estimated to contain from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil. It would take congressional approval to allow oil exploration in the coastal plain. President Clinton has repeatedly turned back attempts by Alaska's Republican congressional delegation to open the area.

Development advocates may now have an ally in the White House, but they acknowledge they still must win support from a divided Congress and the public. High home heating oil and natural gas prices and talk of planned power outages in California may help make their argument, said Cam Toohey, executive director of the pro-drilling lobby Arctic Power.

''I think that will generate more interest in domestic oil and ANWR than anything else,'' Toohey said. ''One thing we have is a lot of oil. ''When the winter gets cold and it gets darker, people will appreciate that more and more, including politicians.''

Environmentalists and the Gwich'in Indians of Interior Alaska and Northwest Canada say oil development would jeopardize wildlife in the coastal plain. The refuge is home to polar and grizzly bears, musk oxen, hundreds of species of migrating birds and thousand of caribou that forage and give birth there. The Gwich'in have, for generations, depended upon the caribou.

Conservation groups are pledging renewed efforts to oppose ANWR development under a Bush administration.

''It doesn't necessarily mean we're going to see drilling in the refuge in the next year if Bush is president, but it will make our work much more difficult,'' said Sarah Callaghan Chapell of the Sierra Club.

Drilling opponents are pressing to have President Clinton designate the refuge a national monument before he leaves office next month. Such a designation would not add any additional protections to the coastal plain. But elevating the 100-mile-long swath of Arctic shoreline to the same status as the Statue of Liberty, Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana could create a considerable hurdle for development advocates.

President Clinton said earlier this month that he has not yet made a decision on whether to designate the area as a national monument, but said he would discuss the issue with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

A monument designation would likely face a legal challenge from drilling advocates who say it would violate the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The act transformed 104 million acres -- more than a quarter of Alaska's land area -- into national parks, preserves, refuges, forests and other conservation land. Under the act, there can be no further withdrawals of land from development in Alaska for more than one year without the approval of Congress.

Without a monument designation for the coastal plain, environmentalists may try to bargain with a Bush White House to keep the drilling rigs out. And with Bush pledging to bring a spirit of cooperation to Washington, opening the coastal plain of ANWR may not be the first issue he chooses to tackle.

''Governor Bush is a smart politician. If he really wants to get things done on energy policy he won't go after the Arctic refuge,'' said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League. ''Especially given how closely Congress is divided. No one can disagree about how controversial it is.''

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