A planned study of possible new wilderness protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has sparked a furor in Alaska, where energy companies have long dreamed of tapping oil reserves beneath its vast coastal plain home to herds of migrating animals.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service effort announced this week is part of a sweeping review of a land-management plan for what is the second-largest national wildlife refuge in the country.
The agency said that its work was just starting and that a formal draft was not expected until next year.
But the oil industry and its political allies regard it as a prelude to an attempt to keep the refuge off-limits to energy production for good by formally declaring its remote coastal tundra as wilderness.
“Alaska will not allow the federal government to lock up more land without a fight,” Alaska Governor Sean Parnell said this week.
The Alaska Wilderness League, for its part, accuses oil companies of trying to destroy a refuge that represents the only place on Alaska’s North Slope that is legislatively closed to development.
“The Arctic Refuge is one of the last true wilderness areas left in the United States — some places are just too special to sacrifice to oil and gas development,” said Cindy Shogan, the league’s executive director.
Established 50 years ago in the northeast corner of Alaska, the refuge occupies 7.8 million hectares, stretching from saltwater marshes of the Beaufort Sea on its northern edge to the spruce, birch and aspen forests in the Brooks Range’s southern foothills.
Its wilderness plan was last revised in 1988, eight years after Congress expanded the refuge to its current size and effectively closed all of it to energy development.
The sweeping review is only in its preliminary stages, with a draft plan expected next year, said Bruce Woods, spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.
“We haven’t proposed anything for wilderness. We’re not nearly ready for that,” Woods said on Thursday.
Ultimately, an act of Congress is required to open the coastal plain to oil drilling or designate it as wilderness — the most protective classification that can be applied on federally owned lands.
However, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said the study was “a blatant political move by the administration and clearly violates the promise of no more administrative wilderness designations in Alaska.”
“This is a waste of time and taxpayer money — and it’s a proposed waste of the oil and natural gas resources that belong to all Americans,” she said in a statement.
Conservation groups have their own supporters on Capitol Hill. A group of US senators is proposing to establish formal wilderness designation for the coastal plain, a move that would make oil drilling in the refuge all the more remote.