ANWR plain may be proposed for wilderness status

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- For the first time in two decades, federal wildlife managers will take a look at how they administer the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the possibility of asking Congress to make 1.5 million acres of the long-disputed coastal plain off limits to oil and gas development by designating it as wilderness.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement comes less than a week after President Obama's decision to halt drilling in some offshore areas in Alaska and allow it in others, the timing is coincidental.

Bruce Woods, the Alaska spokesman for the service, said all U.S. refuges are supposed to revamp their master plans every 15 years, and the ANWR plan is overdue. "It's been more than 20 years, and it's time to sit back and say, 'Are we doing this in the most effective way possible?' " he said.

All aspects of the refuge's management are up for discussion, Woods said. The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold public meetings throughout Alaska over the next two months, and they're expected to issue a draft plan in February 2011.

While environmentalists praised the move, it drew immediate rebuke from Alaska Republican Gov. Sean Parnell and members of the state's congressional delegation, who see exploration in the coastal plain of the refuge as vital for the continued operation of the trans-Alaska pipeline and a thriving state economy.

"The oil and gas, wilderness, and wildlife values of the coastal plain have already been studied," Parnell said. "It is a mistake for the federal government to initiate yet another planning process in ANWR, the most promising unexplored petroleum region in North America."

All said they plan aggressive participation in the Fish and Wildlife Service's planning process. Republican Rep. Don Young said he would "adamantly oppose" any new wilderness designations.

Both Alaska senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich, said they'd fight any new wilderness designations. Begich said he'd use his position on the Senate Budget Committee to cut funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service's study.

"The Obama administration is wrong to pursue new wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or anywhere else in Alaska," Begich said. "I'll fight any effort to block development of the enormous oil and gas likely beneath the Arctic Refuge."

If the Fish and Wildlife Service recommends adding wilderness or wild-and-scenic river designations, it would be up to the Interior secretary to decide whether to recommend Congress move forward. Congress makes such designations, and it's also up to Congress to determine how to handle ANWR's disputed coastal plain, which was given special status in 1980 because of its potential for natural resource extraction.

There's little precedent, however, for retracting wilderness designations by Congress, so once an area achieves such a status and it's signed into law by the president, it's permanent.