WASHINGTON — For the first time in two decades, federal wildlife managers will take a look at how they administer the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the possibility of asking Congress to make 1.5 million acres of the long-disputed coastal plain off limits to oil and gas development by designating it as wilderness.
Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement comes less than a week after President Barack Obama's decision to halt drilling in some offshore areas in Alaska and allow it in others, the timing is coincidental.
Bruce Woods, the Alaska spokesman for the service, said all U.S. refuges are supposed to revamp their master plans every 15 years, and the ANWR plan is overdue.
"It's been more than 20 years, and it's time to sit back and say 'are we doing this in the most effective way possible?'" he said.
All aspects of the refuge's management are up for discussion, Woods said. The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold public meetings throughout Alaska during the next two months, and it's expected to issue a draft plan in February 2011.
While environmentalists praised the move, it drew immediate rebuke from Alaska Republican Gov. Sean Parnell and members of the state's congressional delegation, who see exploration in the coastal plain of the refuge as vital for the continued operation of the trans-Alaska pipeline and a thriving state's economy.
"The oil and gas, wilderness, and wildlife values of the coastal plain have already been studied," Parnell said. "It is a mistake for the federal government to initiate yet another planning process in ANWR, the most promising unexplored petroleum region in North America."
All said they plan aggressive participation in the Fish and Wildlife Service's planning process. Republican Rep. Don Young said he'd "adamantly oppose" any new wilderness designations.
"Two-thirds of Alaska's lands are already locked up by the federal government," he said. "Enough is enough."
Both Alaska senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich, said they'd fight any new wilderness designations. Begich said he'd use his position on the Senate Budget Committee to cut funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service's study.
"The Obama administration is wrong to pursue new wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or anywhere else in Alaska," Begich said. "I'll fight any effort to block development of the enormous oil and gas likely beneath the Arctic Refuge."
If the Fish and Wildlife Service recommends adding wilderness or wild-and-scenic river designations, it would be up to the Interior secretary to decide whether to recommend Congress move forward. Congress makes such designations, and it's also up to Congress to determine how to handle ANWR's disputed coastal plain, which was given special status in 1980 because of its potential for natural resource extraction.
There's little precedent, however, for retracting wilderness designations by Congress, so once an area achieves such a status and it's signed into law by the president, it's permanent.
Obama hasn't taken a position on increasing the wilderness within ANWR, but the White House said Wednesday he remains firmly opposed to any oil or gas production in the refuge.
Environmentalists have long sought a permanent ban on drilling in the refuge, and during the past 20 years have fought off attempts by Republican lawmakers and presidents to open portions of it to further oil and gas exploration. Wednesday, they said they're thrilled with the possibility of adding wilderness to the 19.6 million acre refuge, half of which already is designated as wilderness.
The arctic refuge is the only one in the system that has as its establishing principle the mission to "protect wilderness values," said Evan Hirsche, the president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
"It's a powerful principle and it's often left out of the debate," he said. "The Arctic refuge is remarkable in that it's on such a grand scale, unlike anywhere else in the United States. It's iconic in its importance to wildlife conservation and wilderness."
The Gwich'in Alaskans, who have long called the region home, said they're pleased.
"We've been a part of this ecosystem for 20,000 years, and we are a part of it," said Luci Beach of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, which has long fought drilling. "So we see this as finally an opportunity to at least begin to look at the wilderness and wildlife values in a real scientific manner, and an ecological sort of manner."
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