Obama Panders on Alaska Land

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., Sept. 29, 2010 – I love Alaska. The beauty of the mountain ranges, rivers, islands, and glaciers is stunning. The diversity of habitat and wildlife inspires wonder. The summer days and winter nights are filled with mystery. The people, of all ethnicities and political persuasions, are endearing and quirky. My kinda place.

But anyone who tells you that the Section 1002 land on the northern coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is pristine and worthy of protection as wilderness either doesn’t know Alaska or has a political agenda that has nothing to do with preserving wilderness. And that’s just what the Obama administration and the Interior Department are telling us.

According to The Energy Daily, Interior is proposing to examine three areas inside ANWR, including the land set aside by Congress in 1980 in Section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act,  for protection from development. The 1002 land consists of 1.5 million acres, out of a total of some 19 million acres in ANWR, as the only place in the refuge where oil and gas exploration can occur. For that to happen, Congress must agree to allow drilling, which it has not done in 30 years.

The action by the administration appears to me a clear case of the administration trying to prevent what may be a Republican Congress next year from another attempt to drill for oil and gas on the coastal land. The White House is also throwing a green bone to some environmentalists, having failed to persuade the American people to support global warming legislation.

There is little question that the 1002 area is rich in fossil resources, particularly crude oil. Legendary fights over drilling in the area have punctuated the history of Alaska since Congress passed the Alaska lands act. A wilderness designation would sound the bell for another round.

Environmentalists have tried from the beginning to paint a picture of the area as wilderness of the first class, what some have called “America’s Serengeti.” Most readers have probably seen beautiful photographs of ANWR, taken from the coastal plain looking south to the Brooks Range. Drilling opponents have used these dramatic images to make their case for the pristine nature of the territory. That’s essentially trick photography, showing precisely where oil and gas exploration is forbidden.

Looking north from the Brooks Range across the coastal plain reveals a far different picture: a flat, featureless plain, pocked with tiny ponds, crossed with snowmobile trails, including more than a few abandoned snowmobiles. On the margin of the land and the Beaufort Sea is the village of Kaktovik, largely but not entirely populated by Eskimo people, complete with a small airstrip. To the west is a large, dominating silver structure that looks much like a drive-in theater screen. This is an abandoned remnant of the 1950s DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line that the U.S. erected along the 69th parallel to warn of incoming Soviet bombers flying the Polar route to U.S. targets, signaling atomic war. The DEW line became operational in late July 1957 and was almost immediately obsolete. The USSR launched Sputnik into orbit in early October.

Without going into the whole question of energy exploration in wildlife refuges, which is common, the 1002 land does not meet any legal or traditional definition of wilderness. In 1935, the founders of The Wilderness Society said, “All we desire to save from invasion is that extremely minor fraction of outdoor America which yet remains free from mechanical sights and sounds and smell.” The 1964 federal Wilderness Act states, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

To my mind, the question is not about energy. The amount of oil likely to lie under the 1002 land, while commercially valuable, is hardly sufficient to change the overall picture of U.S. oil production. North Slope production has been declining for decades and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is slowly emptying. ANWR oil would keep it going for some additional years. But that’s not very important from a national perspective.

It’s not about environmental protection. The 1.5 million acres open to exploration is tiny. The 1980 act protected some 56 million acres of Alaska not already under other protections. The U.S. government, not the oil industry, owns most of Alaska, and has been a fairly responsible steward.

In my mind, the question about drilling on the coastal plain of the North Slope is about intellectual honesty, respect for law, and political pandering. The land in dispute is not wilderness. I’ve seen it. It doesn’t touch my heart and I doubt if it would touch yours. Alaska’s true wilderness, which is literally breathtaking, is not open to oil and gas exploration. Interior, if it attempts to designate the 1002 lands as wilderness, will be flouting the law and I would hope that Congress would reign in the executive branch. As for pandering, well, that’s what presidents seem to do, and Obama appears to be among the best.