Our view: Beluga mystery

Skip economic disaster rhetoric; let's focus on research, recovery

December 7, 2009 

Having listed the Cook Inlet beluga as endangered, the federal government now says roughly a third of the Inlet is critical habitat for the whales, including the waters around Anchorage. Any development funded or permitted by the feds in that habitat will require extra scrutiny to avoid harm to the whales. U.S. Rep. Don Young made it sound like the feds just handed radical greenies the legal equivalent of a nuclear bomb so they can block any and all development.

He said it was "yet another attempt to halt resource production and development in Alaska, and a step towards making the whole state a national park for the enjoyment of Outsiders."

Other political leaders who spoke up expressed similar worry, though in more temperate language.

But the belugas' plight doesn't have to portend economic disaster.

Here's a modest proposal.

Instead of spending buckets of money to fight the feds in court, spend that money on research into how to help the belugas recover.

Nobody knows why the belugas haven't bounced back to healthy levels, despite a decade of respite from hunting. Without good information, it's hard to say whether any particular project is going to harm the whales' recovery.

That uncertainty is a legitimate concern.

The answer, though, is not to deny that the whales are in jeopardy. State and local leaders have done that for the past 10 years and in doing so wasted valuable time that could have been spent looking for solutions.

It's time to switch to problem-solving mode. Let's find out what's ailing the belugas and figure out what steps will help. The more we know about the belugas' plight, the less likely development projects will run into legal trouble.

Alaska has other endangered species, and they haven't stopped some pretty intensive economic activity. Oil is being pumped from the marine waters off the North Slope, even though the bowhead whale is endangered. A billion dollars' worth of fishing takes place in the Aleutians, even though the western Steller sea lion is endangered.

Longtime residents will remember when belugas were a common sight off Anchorage's shores. They were our marine equivalent of moose, a much-loved part of our Big Wild Life.

Alaskans are resourceful people who enjoy being close to nature and respect the environment. Surely we can find a way to help the belugas come back without stifling economic progress.

BOTTOM LINE: Ten years of denying there's a problem hasn't accomplished anything.

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