An expensive fumble on ANWR surveying

A lot of Alaskans were surprised in mid-February when the Department of the Interior issued a press release saying that Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. had missed a deadline to do required aerial surveys looking for polar bears.

This was for Kaktovik’s application to do a winter geophysical survey on lands it owns in the Arctic coastal plain. The government did not approve the program because KIC failed to make the flights before a Feb.13 deadline, Interior said.

How did this happen? Did Kaktovik forget to make the flights?

Turns out there’s more to it.

Kaktovik is an Inupiat village on the north coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. Its village corporation, KIC, owns a 92,000-acre inholding in the refuge’s coastal plain, which many geologists believe to be prospective for oil and gas discoveries.

The survey would have given Kaktovik information it needs to evaluate the underlying rocks and their potential to hold oil deposits, although only drilling can confirm whether oil is really there.

Anything having to do with the Arctic refuge is politically radioactive in Washington, D.C. these days, and President Joe Biden makes no secret about his opposition to exploring there. Given that, it’s easy to conclude that the new federal administration was looking for any excuse to say no even to a private landowner. There may be other factors, though.

I contacted the Interior Department to ask about this. The story, it turns out, is that Interior did not give Kaktovik the needed authorization for the aerial surveys. That caused KIC to miss the deadline.

It happened, I was told, because the agency was buried in responding to six million public comments that were filed by opponents to ANWR exploration. Agency staff were not able to get to the approvals for the flights before the deadline.

The aerial surveys are required by the federal Endangered Species Act, and overflight counts as a potential disturbance to polar bears, so permission is needed.

What infuriated people at Kaktovik, however, is that the Interior Department didn’t mention this in the press release. It was the agency that had caused the deadline to be missed, not Kaktovik, they told me.

All this sounds kind of lame. How much work does it take to authorize an airplane flight?

To be charitable, agencies have to be careful in issuing authorizations and we should recognize the burden imposed by the deluge in public comments, many which require written responses.

This may also be a case where mid-level agency officials hesitated to make decisions on a hot-button issue while the Interior Department was in a state of transition.

Kaktovik’s geophysical survey was mostly focused on its own lands, but also included adjacent refuge lands. That was needed, it was explained, because geologists need to have a wider regional picture of the rocks to adequately interpret the data.

This also makes Interior a stakeholder as guardian of the adjacent refuge lands, of course. Interior’s responsibility is also to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, and this includes private as well as public lands. The bear surveys are needed no matter whose land is involved.

Polar bears den during winter on the Arctic plain, and the Interior Department must ensure measures are taken to avoid disturbing bears during hibernation, particularly since this is also when cubs are born.

Heat-sensing infrared technology can usually detect the bear dens and the federal agency typically requires aerial surveys using infrared, and this usually supplemented with ground-based infrared once geophysical equipment is moving on the ground.

There is a debate as to how effective infrared is in detecting bear dens in the particular terrain of the coastal plain, which is somewhat hilly. These are technical issues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service and explorers like Kaktovik must wrestle with.

Kaktovik has meanwhile renewed its application with hopes to doing its geophysical survey next winter. That should allow plenty of time for the required aerial polar bear surveys to be approved by the government.

It’s possible that Kaktovik could still be frustrated in exploring its lands. The enclave is surrounded by Arctic refuge lands, and the Biden administration’s position in ANWR is well known.

There are provisions, however, in the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act (by which Congress created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1980), that guarantee access to Native-owned (and state-owned) lands across refuge or national park lands.

Kaktovik may have to test those provisions in ANILCA and the state may join a lawsuit. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has already proposed a $4 million litigation fund.

It is awkward for the new Biden administration to appear to oppose aspirations of a Native American company like KIC. The president must balance this against opposition of another Alaska Native group, the Gwich’in of Arctic Village.

A private landowner still has rights that should be respected, however. The fumble this year has cost people money in planning and getting equipment ready. It shouldn’t happen again.

Tim Bradner is copublisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and Alaska Economic Report.

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