As Shell Oil sends its ships to the Arctic, there is mounting pressure on the Obama administration to halt offshore drilling operations in this high-risk environment. There is no proven technology to clean up an oil spill in sea ice conditions and the nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away. Drilling is a big gamble, given the powerful storms, massive ice floes and rough seas -- the polar bears, walrus, seals, and local Inupiaq Eskimos stand to lose the most.
Unnoticed in the debate over offshore drilling is the neighboring National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the biggest tract of public land remaining in America. In our modern world, it's hard to grasp the reality of 23 million acres in the northwest corner of Alaska -- an area the size of Maine -- still in existence that is mostly undisturbed, with few roads or significant human impacts.
This unfortunate name conjures up an image of fuel drums and storage tanks, not the kind of place where you can climb a mountain, paddle our wildest rivers or watch our nation's largest caribou herd migrate past your tent. If this land of abundant wildlife and stunning wilderness were anywhere else in the U.S., it would more likely be a national park than a national petroleum reserve.
For the past three summers, I traveled by canoe for more than 600 miles through the reserve and experienced its wildness firsthand. We paddled for weeks through mountain valleys and vast rolling tundra where we did not see another human being. The only sounds heard were those of the land itself: caribou grunting, loons crying, wolves howling, grizzly bears huffing, willows rustling in the clean, free wind.
As we studied the land, we felt like Lewis and Clark, exploring a wild landscape where America's First People lived more than 10,000 years ago, where Inupiaq Eskimos continue to hunt and fish today. It contains some of the oldest archaeological sites in North America and the largest bed of polar dinosaur bones in the world.
For the first time since President Warren G. Harding established the reserve in 1923, we all have an opportunity to comment about the fate of this remarkable place. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has just released its first draft management plan for the reserve, including several alternatives. The submission deadline for public comments is June 1.
By law, the Department of Interior must balance conservation values with any oil production, providing "maximum protection" to designated Special Areas important for subsistence, recreation, fish and wildlife, and historical or scenic values. To date, the BLM, has established four Special Areas worthy of protection -- Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, Utukok River Uplands and Kasegaluk Lagoon.
Alternative B in the plan offers a good balance between conservation and oil development. The existing special areas would be expanded to protect important wildlife habitat and Peard Bay would become a new special area, providing a vital refuge for polar bears, walrus, seals and waterfowl. Twelve exquisite Arctic rivers would be nominated for Wild and Scenic status, including the Utukok, Nigu, Etivluk and upper Colville, where we paddled.
This alternative would open about half of the reserve to oil and gas leasing, while the other half would remain off-limits, protecting places such as the calving grounds of the Western Arctic caribou herd and world-class wetlands for migratory birds around Teshekpuk Lake.
Alternative B offers a good, 50-50 balanced approach to conservation and resource development. Now is the time to tell Secretary Ken Salazar to protect special areas within the reserve, safeguarding key habitats and wildlife for the Arctic's future.
Visit www.blm.gov/ak to review the draft plan and submit comments. A hearing on the plan is scheduled in Anchorage at 6 p.m. on May 24 at the Campbell Creek Science Center.
Alaska author Debbie S. Miller has explored the Arctic for nearly four decades. Her forthcoming book, "On Arctic Ground" (Braided River, 2012), will describe the wonders of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. She is a founding board member of the Alaska Wilderness League, a national organization whose mission is to protect wild places in Alaska.