The Republican-controlled Congress recently was thwarted in its attempt to drill for oil in one of America's most special wildlife refuges, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska. But now, the Bush administration has unilaterally opened up another Alaskan ecological treasure for industrial development. From the Los Angeles Times late last week:
The Department of Interior on Wednesday approved oil and gas drilling on Alaska land considered such sensitive wildlife habitat that it was first protected by former Interior Secretary James G. Watt under President Reagan, and by four Interior secretaries since.
The plan, signed by Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Chad Calvert, will open up more than 500,000 acres in and around Teshekpuk Lake on Alaska's oil-rich North Slope.
What's the big deal, one may say? This lake is in an area called the "National Petroleum Reserve," a tag that dates from the administration of Warren G. Harding. That certainly makes it sound like it's not good for anything but oil drilling.
But that name clearly belies the nature of the land it purports to label.
What is the real Teshekpuk Lake? A couple weeks ago, the Seattle Times wrote about it:
Amid the sprawling sameness of Alaska's tundra is an oval pool of fresh water nine times the size of Lake Washington.In the late 1990s, thanks to a compromise worked out by President Clinton's Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, nearly ninety percent of this area of the National Petroleum Reserve was opened up to oil exploration, leaving the area around Teshekpuk Lake protected. But, based on this latest action, the GOP clearly wants it all.
Teshekpuk Lake supports one of the largest bird-nesting sites in North America. Inupiat hunters camp here among the heather and wild poppies to track wolverines or shoot ducks or net eellike burbot and catch whitefish.
"Here we have a huge biologically active area that's precious to us," said Marie Carroll, an Inupiat whose family hunted here for generations. "But all you hear down south is 'Save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."
On a clear day this summer, 70 miles from the nearest road, thousands of spindly-legged shorebirds fluttered in from as far as Japan or South America to shed their feathers.
Newborn caribous traipsed along a crooked scratch of creek, feeding on cotton grass.
A black loon slid across a pond that looked like it was stamped into the tundra by giant boot heels.
Life flourishes on this marshy plain, biologists say, because of what's absent: roads, artificial lights, trails — and people.
"It's the beating heart," said George Ahmaogak, an Inupiat whale hunter who just retired as mayor of the North Slope Borough, Northern Alaska's municipal government. "The area is abundant with fish, caribou, brant, white snow geese. It's full of berries. It's one of the last completely undisturbed areas. It's God's country."
The administration claims they are attempting to mitigate the impact of industrial development of the populations of nesting migratory birds and caribou.
But conservation groups blasted the plan and said there were no guarantees the restrictions would remain in place.
"[The Bureau of Land Management is] notorious for granting waivers to their own rules," said Stanley E. Senner, a biologist who is executive director of Audubon Alaska.
"This plan is utterly unbalanced. Even the Reagan administration protected the waterfowl habitat around Teshekpuk Lake because of its world-class ecological and cultural value," Senner said. "No one should be fooled by the window dressing … this plan makes every last acre available for oil development."
Chuck Clusen, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's Alaska Project, said the BLM "is supposed to balance all values of our public lands. Giving 100% to the oil industry is not what anyone would call balanced."
What chance does wildlife have in the long run as a neighbor to heavy industry in an isolated corner of the world?
"Once they start building permanent oil structures, you'll have roads, pipelines — all of which can alter the flow, and the flow of wetlands is complex," [scientist and government consultant Larry] Moulton said.What else will our oil hunger, egged on by our alleged leaders in the Republican-controlled government, destroy before we are done?
Moulton is part of a scientific blitzkrieg that has descended on these meadows with biologists trying to study everything from snow geese to caribous before oil rigs arrive. The reason: Much remains unknown about Teshekpuk.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned that shorebirds return to the same areas each year, so some could be wiped out if breeding sites are disturbed.
State of Alaska scientists have told the BLM that molting geese — featherless and unable to flee — are vulnerable because noise and movement harm their young, and oil development draws foxes and bears, which eat the garbage people leave behind. Scientists have even shown that helicopters so stress Pacific brant that the birds burn more calories.
And "the petroleum reserve is far better than the Arctic Refuge as far as sheer numbers and variety of birds," said Rick Lanctot, a bird expert with the federal fish and wildlife agency. "The diversity and density is just much higher."