Alaska officials says Obama is breaking wilderness promise on Arctic refuge recommendation

Alaska political leaders who believed they had a federal government promise of "no more" wilderness designations in the state kept hammering away at President Obama's announcement that he will seek that designation for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The president on Jan. 25 announced he would recommend that more than 18,750 square miles of the refuge be designated as wilderness, making all of the refuge's 29,700 square miles part of the national conservation system and off-limits to petroleum drilling, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner ( reported.

That would include 2,344 square miles of the refuge coastal plain, where the U.S. Geological Survey in 2005 estimated there could be as much as 10 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and more than 37 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Alaska officials for decades have sought unsuccessfully to open the refuge coastal plain to drilling. The desire for new finds has grown more acute with the price of Alaska North Slope crude oil falling drastically and state government facing billions less in revenue.

Drilling advocates contend language in a 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) barred the federal government form creating more wilderness, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't see it that way.

It's the agency's job to make plans that could include future wilderness designation recommendations, according to agency managers. They acknowledge that only Congress can designate wilderness, but they say refuge plans must allow that possibility.

"ANILCA says we're supposed to protect those values, and set up a categorization of management, and so we do that. That's part of the planning process," refuges chief Mitch Ellis said. "We're not violating the 'no more' clause of ANILCA because this is part of a comprehensive planning effort. And so to not address wilderness resource values or wild and scenic river resource values, that wouldn't be staying true to comprehensive planning."

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the wilderness recommendation is another barrier to development on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, especially because it probably will not pass Congress.

The move is a way to further lock up Alaska natural resources with executive action that bypasses congressional approval, Sullivan said.

"It's really this Obama two-step," he said.


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner,