The recent congressional authorization to open the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploratory drilling manifests once again the complex relationship Alaskans have with their environment. It's a "love, sort of" relationship.
Over the nearly 40 years since passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which left to Congress the decision on whether to drill in coastal littoral of the more than 19-million-acre refuge, most Alaskans when polled have supported drilling. Residents of the adjacent North Slope Borough are divided on the question, with the Gwich'in on the southern border of the Refuge generally opposed.
For their broad statewide support, Alaskans have often enough been characterized by national and local environmentalists as careless exploiters of pristine, irreplaceable lands and wildlife, precious to the American nation. Alaskans have often enough struck back, labeling environmentalists as extreme, naïve and selfish. This is not a new polarization in the western states or in other northern settled regions. But because of Alaska's vast undeveloped areas and sparse population, and the state's slavish economic dependence on development of natural resources, the confrontation of values takes on a unique edge here.
In fact, Alaskans are sensitive to environmental and other protection of their own land. Alaskans use state land and waters at a higher rate than other states, unsurprisingly as little of Alaska's land is developed and opportunities for outdoor experiences are what draw many people north. The state has designated 3.3 million acres in 123 units as state park land. Of the 5.4 million annual visitors to the parks, two-thirds are state residents. Chugach State Park, adjacent to Anchorage, is one of the nation's largest, affording convenient access to all levels of outdoor experience. The state parks department says Alaskans participate in wilderness recreation at twice the national average. When the term "Alaskan lifestyle" is used by locals, it generally means some level of active engagement in outdoor recreational activity. Sport fishing is immensely popular, with salmon the primary object. Hunting is less popular, but there are many world-class hunting opportunities available on state land.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation focuses on environmental quality, particularly food and water. It regulates and monitors air and water quality, sets standards for and directs hazardous spill response and contamination, and manages safeguards for environmental health. The department was deeply involved in the aftermath of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez. DEC also enforces regulations for cruise ships operating within the three-mile limit of state waters, and the inland waterways of southeast Alaska, the Alexander Archipelago. The department also oversees a village safe water program. Many of Alaska's small, isolated Native villages don't have a reliable safe water system, or acceptable waste and waste water disposal systems. DEC provides financial and technical assistance for the design and construction of adequate systems for these communities. State environmental sensitivity is manifest also in an Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that governs responsible conservation practices relating to drilling, pumping, transporting and storing oil and gas. The department has sometimes imposed serious penalties for environmental despoliation of Alaska land and waters.
As with any public bureaucracy, the issues dealing with environmental protection, quality and public health on Alaska state lands and waters are a function of funding, scope and politics. And like all other environmental issues in Alaska, economic reality establishes the context. Concern for the environment, whether as scenic landscape or in regard to quality and public health, is not the problem for Alaskans. It is a fair generalization to say that Alaskans love their environment and support the environmental concern for biodiversity and preservation. But a problem arises when environmental protection comes into conflict with and threatens in any way to curtail, constrain or inhibit economic development, for Alaska's economic past, present and future is limited to and dependent on the commodification of its natural resources.
Those Alaskans and those in the national government expecting an economic bonanza from refuge drilling may be sorely disappointed, for at this point, no one knows what's there. Setting that question aside, most will tolerate whatever damage is done to the vulnerable lands and wildlife there in the drive to find out.
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