Friday, August 19, 2011

ANWR plan leans to wilderness expansion; public comment open

—Wesley Loy

The federal rollout of a draft management plan that could lead to huge new sections of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being designated “wilderness,” including the potentially oil-rich coastal plain, drew immediate disdain from top Alaska politicians.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which acts as landlord for ANWR, is wasting time and money reviewing whether to make more of the refuge wilderness, said Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat.

“I’ll fight every step of the way any effort by federal bureaucrats to close off this enormous source of oil and gas by slapping it with more wilderness designation,” he said.

Oil and gas exploration and development already is prohibited in ANWR, but a wilderness designation could harden that policy.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, argued the Fish and Wildlife Service lacks authority under ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, to even study designating more wilderness in the state.

“Instead of trying to lock up our resources, we should be developing them as part of a balanced energy plan that creates jobs and bolsters our failing economy,” Murkowski said. “There’s a tremendous amount of money buried in the ground in Alaska, and it’s time to withdraw it.”

Alaska’s Republican governor, Sean Parnell, also objected to the draft 15-year management plan for ANWR.

“This is another unfortunate effort by the Obama Administration to prevent Americans from developing Alaska’s vast resources for the benefit of the country,” Parnell said.

Conservation groups encouraged
Conservation groups, as well as a group representing indigenous Gwich’in people, hailed the prospect of expanding wilderness within ANWR, the protection of which has long been a top priority for the environmental community.

“We are encouraged that the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering Wilderness recommendations for the coastal plain, the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge,” said Dan Ritzman, Alaska regional director for the Sierra Club. “For decades Americans from all walks of life have asked for permanent protection for these critical lands and waters and now they have the opportunity to move this one step closer to reality.”

“The Arctic Refuge is one of the country’s most treasured, pristine places, and as of yet remains unspoiled by widespread industrial scale oil and gas operations,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. “The Fish and Wildlife Service should seize the opportunity to strengthen protection for the refuge and its diversity of wildlife against the threat of Big Oil and pursue a wilderness recommendation.”

“Since President Eisenhower established the Arctic Refuge in 1960, our nation has acted to embrace the bold wilderness vision of the refuge’s founders and to protect it from oil and gas interests. In the face of climate change and a renewed push to develop the Arctic for oil and gas, our country’s leaders should support the wishes of Americans by taking the necessary steps to permanently protect the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain — a globally significant, vital homeland and birthing ground for millions of birds, polar bears and caribou, as well as a critical subsistence resource,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska director for The Wilderness Society.

‘Preliminarily recommended’
It’s far from assured that more ANWR acreage will be designated wilderness. Such a measure would need to clear several approvals before winning the ultimate OK from Congress.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2010 began work to revise what’s known as the “comprehensive conservation plan” for ANWR. The original plan was signed into effect in 1988, and the service says it’s time to freshen it up.

Already, the service has conducted a scoping process, which generated more than 94,000 comments from individuals and organizations.

Out of that has come the new draft comprehensive conservation plan, which the service announced on Aug. 12.

“The draft plan contains six alternatives for long-term management, ranging from the continuation of current practices to the designation of three geographic areas (including the Arctic Refuge coastal plain) for potential inclusion within the National Wilderness Preservation System, and the potential designation of four additional Wild and Scenic Rivers on the refuge,” an agency press release said.

The draft plan does not identify a preferred alternative, saying all options remain under “active consideration.”

But it appears that sentiment within the Fish and Wildlife Service favors establishing new wilderness areas within ANWR.

Located in the extreme northeast corner of Alaska, the remote refuge takes in 19.3 million acres — nearly the size of South Carolina. About 40 percent of ANWR already is designated wilderness.

The draft plan — specifically Appendix H, the “wilderness review” — indicates three huge new chunks of ANWR are “preliminarily recommended for wilderness designation.”

These include the coastal plain at 1.6 million acres; a southern ANWR area known as the Porcupine Plateau at 4.4 million acres; and the western Brooks Range area at 5.7 million acres.

All told, practically all of ANWR would be wilderness if these three areas were designated as such, with only relatively small areas near villages remaining non-wilderness.

No oil, gas alternatives
The Fish and Wildlife Service is inviting public comments on the draft plan through Nov. 15. The agency plans to hold public hearings around the state, including one in Anchorage on Sept. 21 and another in Fairbanks on Oct. 19.

The plan and details on how to submit comments are online at http://arctic.fws.gov/ccp.htm.

The agency aims to issue its “record of decision” by the end of 2012.

“If the final plan recommends additional Wilderness and/or Wild and Scenic River designations, the recommendation(s) would require approval by the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Secretary of the Interior, and the President,” the agency press release said. “The President would then submit the recommendation to Congress, which alone has the authority to make final decisions on any proposed Wilderness or Wild and Scenic River designations.”

Although comments received during the scoping process overwhelmingly concerned the coastal plain and the question of oil and gas activity, the Fish and Wildlife Service chose not to include plan alternatives to allow oil and gas leasing or 3-D seismic shoots in ANWR, which the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999 estimated could hold several billion barrels of oil.

The governor’s office criticized the service for excluding industry alternatives, calling that decision “inconsistent with existing federal law.”

But nothing in the statutory mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System requires the service to consider or propose development scenarios for oil and gas or other natural resources, the agency said. Anyway, the service added, Congress has reserved the authority to make final decisions on oil and gas development in ANWR.

As for criticism that its wilderness review violates the “no more” clauses in ANILCA, the service argues to the contrary, saying the review is just a “tool” to make sure ANWR is being managed right.

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Republished with the permission of the Petroleum News.