FAIRBANKS -- There was little common ground to be found as supporters and opponents of protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development argued their cases before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Ritchie Musick of Fairbanks told the panel of five ANWR officials that there's no question the 1.5 million acre coastal plain should be designated as wilderness. "Safe oil development is an oxymoron," Musick said.
Others, such as Richard Glenn of Barrow, oppose a wilderness designation out of concern it will endanger the subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Natives on the North Slope.
The federal agency, which is updating its management plan for the 19.6 million-acre refuge, was on its next-to-last stop as it gathers public comment. Besides Thursday's gathering in Fairbanks, meetings have been held in Fort Yukon, Arctic Village, Venetie, Anchorage and Washington, D.C.
A final meeting is scheduled for May 20 in Kaktovik, the only village on the coastal plain.
A wilderness designation would prohibit drilling in the coastal plain, which is believed to contain an estimated 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil and also serves at the calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The debate over development there has been going on for decades.
Most people who spoke in favor of the wilderness designation said they distrust oil companies. Sharon Alden of Fairbanks was one of several people to mention the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in voicing support for a wilderness designation.
"Perhaps development could be done responsibly, but we've seen over and over and over again this doesn't happen," she said.
But Butch Lincoln, business manager for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., said designating the coastal plain a wilderness area would be "shortsighted and a national security risk," given that it has the greatest onshore energy potential in North America. ASRC has some oil and gas rights on the coastal plain.
Morgan Solomon, a Native elder from Barrow, said a wilderness designation would create more rules and regulations for the Inupiaq people.
"Too much government is no good for Alaska," Solomon said. "We've been controlled under the U.S. government for a long time. We have an opportunity to develop oil and natural gas on the North Slope. You can't restrict that land for wildlife only. Human rights have the same opportunity as wildlife."
With Kaktovik the only village within the coastal plain, several Natives said the answer should rest there.
"The village of Kaktovik should decide what to do on their own land, not the federal Fish and Wildlife Service," said George Sielak from the North Slope village of Nuiqsut.