WASHINGTON — Over the years, little has changed in the debate over whether to allow oil exploration in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge .
Environmentalists say the 19.6 million-acre refuge is unlike any other part of the American landscape and should remain an untouched wilderness, unspoiled by man. Those who lead Alaska and who represent the state in Washington argue that the refuge's coastal plain holds billions of barrels of oil, making it one of the nation's best prospects for new onshore oil discoveries. Its development, they say, could provide additional energy security for the nation as well as drive Alaska's economy for years to come.
This year, though, on the 50th anniversary of the refuge, there's a new wrinkle in the debate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is undertaking a two-year management review of the refuge that includes the controversial question: Should the agency recommend that Congress designate more of the refuge as wilderness, including the coastal plain?
For those who want to see the refuge remain undeveloped, the answer is yes.
"Our members are dedicated conservationists," said David Jenkins of Republicans for Environmental Protection. He was among 20 people who offered ideas for the future of the refuge during a hearing Tuesday at the Interior Department in Washington .
"They see oil drilling in Prudhoe Bay and Alaska's North Slope , and they know that vast expanses of Alaska's Arctic have also been made available for such development," Jenkins said. "They've come to the same conclusion the Eisenhower administration came to 50 years ago: that protecting the Arctic refuge provides much-need balance."
Most Alaskans, however, think that the coastal plain should be developed, countered Carl Portman of the Resource Development Council for Alaska .
"In all due respect, we do not need more wilderness in Alaska to sufficiently protect it," Portman said at the hearing. "We can have oil and gas development in a very small area of ANWR while maintaining the very special value of the refuge."
Although much of the focus of the hearing was on whether to allow oil and gas development in the coastal plain, Fish and Wildlife Service officials emphasized Tuesday that their aging refuge management plan needs updating regardless of the wilderness question. The last plan, completed in 1988, doesn't address a number of emerging issues at the refuge, including the effects of climate change.
The agency also said the old plan failed to take into account a state-federal subsistence management program or the opening to the public of the Dalton Highway , the primitive road that runs along the western edge of the refuge through Interior Alaska to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.
"It's time to ask the public what their vision for the future of the Arctic is," said the refuge's manager, Richard Voss . "It's time to take a longer look ahead, basically."
The Fish and Wildlife Service's goal, Voss said, is to determine whether it's meeting the wildlife and natural diversity management mandates of the refuge as well as its responsibilities as a wilderness steward.
If at the end of the two-year process the agency recommends adding wilderness or wild-and-scenic river designations, it would be up to the interior secretary to decide whether to recommend that Congress proceed with making them.
It's also up to Congress to determine how to handle the refuge's disputed coastal plain and whether to allow development there.
There's little precedent for retracting wilderness designations, so once an area achieves such a status and the president signs it into law by, it's all but permanent.
It remains unclear whether the White House is interested in additional wilderness protection, but the Fish and Wildlife Service emphasized Tuesday that politics wouldn't have anything to do with its decision. The agency is working on its own timetable and is in the midst of updating all the master plans for Alaska refuges.
Last month, though, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reiterated the Obama administration's overriding approach to the sanctuary: ANWR "is not on the map for exploration or development," Salazar said at the time. "It never has been under President Obama and it hasn't been for me as secretary of interior."