In one of its last official acts, the Bush administration released a comprehensive policy Monday for the Arctic regions, addressing the growing number of boundary, resource development and shipping disputes in the fast-changing waters north of Alaska's coast.
The Bush presidential directive takes no startling new policy turns, but it does emphasize the outgoing president's support for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, an international agreement blocked by some conservative Republicans.
The directive asserts that the Northwest Passage through Canada is an international shipping route and calls for building up the U.S. presence in the region to protect strategic interests, including homeland security.
The policy talks about promoting responsible energy development and preparing for the risks associated with increased marine traffic through the region as summer ice retreats. The policy also calls for increased study and monitoring of the effects of climate change in the Arctic.
"The United States is an Arctic nation, with varied and compelling interests in that region," the policy declares. Among the commitments: to "involve the Arctic's indigenous communities in decisions that affect them."
The policy statement was praised by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the only member of Congress to participate in work on the plan over the past two years. Murkowski supports ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, saying it would give the U.S. a legal claim to oil and gas resources on the northern continental shelf.
But the directive drew criticism from Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska Anchorage marine biology professor who tried to have the policy delayed until Barack Obama takes office. He said the policy should commit to reducing greenhouse gases, not merely talk about studying the causes of climate change in the Arctic.
Overall, he said, the policy is tilted toward "commercial and military exploitation" of the area. "This may have been George Bush's last gift to the oil industry," he said.
On the other hand, Bush's public support may prevent the Law of the Sea from turning into a partisan battle between Obama and conservatives who fear the treaty would surrender too much American sovereignty to hostile international bureaucrats.
"By having a Republican administration say some of those things, it may help move that agenda along," said Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, who worked with the State Department and other federal officials on the policy.
A Murkowski spokesman said Monday she is optimistic this year about approval of the Law of the Sea treaty, which was drawn up in 1982 and has been ratified by more than 150 countries.
The Bush policy on the Arctic was reported near completion last summer. But it vanished off the radar during the height of the presidential campaign as Republican John McCain came under fire from some conservatives for his past support for the treaty.
The breadth of the 11-page directive's concerns, and its public release, show how far Arctic concerns have risen as a priority, Treadwell said.
He said the last time the government drew up an Arctic policy was 1994, and it remained a closely held document only summarized publicly in a press release. The Arctic policy before 1994, he said, was top secret, even from most policy-makers, presumably because its major concerns were deployment of nuclear submarines under the polar ice.
Steiner said he supported some elements of the policy, including its call for a risk assessment study of Arctic shipping. But he said he would rather see maritime commerce in the Arctic curbed while such studies are under way, rather than promoted.
He also was concerned about increased use of icebreaking ships in the Arctic, saying that might speed the loss of sea ice habitat. Funding for new ice breakers also has been opposed by fiscal conservatives in Congress.
The policy refers generally to investing in "infrastructure to support shipping activity, search and rescue capabilities," and other measures.
Treadwell said new icebreakers will be important not only for research but to "project the U.S. presence" in a time of growing traffic. The U.S. is not in a position to unilaterally push a moratorium on shipping, he said.
"With that ocean opening up, lord knows what kinds of ships are going to show up," Treadwell said.
The policy explicitly rejects proposals for a new international treaty among the eight Arctic nations, saying current cooperative arrangements are preferable to the kind of treaty that governs the Antarctic.
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By TOM KIZZIA