1996Editorial Writing

In Alaska, Nature Under Siege

By: 
Robert B. Semple, Jr.
August 28, 1995

Every state in the union will suffer in one way or another from the Republicans' relentless effort to undermine 25 years of legislation designed to protect the environment. But Alaska faces a double insult. If bills now moving through Congress receive final approval, the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be opened to oil drilling and the Tongass National Forest -- the country's largest -- would be exposed to ruinous logging.

All this is courtesy of Alaska's Congressional delegation, which consists of three Republicans. They are Representative Don Young, Senator Ted Stevens and Senator Frank Murkowski, who would also extend his fervor for logging to the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Murkowski and Mr. Young are men with legendarily retrograde views on the environment. By a stroke of ill fortune known as the 1994 mid-term elections, they now preside over the two key natural resources committees in the Senate and House.

They argue that opening up the refuge and the forest will create jobs and revenue for the state. If oil is found in the refuge, there will indeed be new jobs and an infusion of cash to every Alaskan citizen. For these reasons, Alaskans as a whole would like to see drilling proceed. They are far less enthusiastic about increasing the timber harvest in Tongass.

Conservationists oppose exploitation of both the refuge and the forest. We agree. The short-term benefits of drilling and logging are not worth the long-term degradation of the environment.

The Tongass National Forest is a vast expanse of islands and lush valleys covering most of the Alaska Panhandle. It is home to grizzly bears, bald eagles and countless salmon. It also includes magnificent stands of old-growth trees coveted by timber companies. After years of rapacious logging in the forest, Congress passed a bill in 1990 that set aside one million acres as protected wilderness, imposed strict land-management rules in other parts of the forest and sharply reduced Federal subsidies to the timber companies.

Mr. Murkowski now seeks to overturn that act with legislation requiring the Forest Service to increase the yearly "harvest" to provide enough timber to guarantee a minimum of 2,400 jobs. In case Mr. Murkowski gets nowhere with his proposal, Senator Stevens has attached a rider to the Interior Department's appropriation bill that would accomplish the same result, mandating a far higher annual cut than presently allowed.

These are shortsighted proposals, a point well made by Alaska's Democratic Governor, Tony Knowles. He has told Mr. Murkowski that by exalting timber-related jobs over other economic activities in the forest -- like fishing and tourism -- he will not only degrade Tongass but undermine the future economic health of southeast Alaska.

Regrettably, for political reasons, Mr. Knowles does not display the same zeal on the question of opening the wildlife refuge to oil drilling. At risk is the refuge's coastal plain -- a narrow, 1.6 million-acre wilderness that flanks the Beaufort Sea. It is home to 180,000 caribou, polar bears, wolves, dozens of rare Arctic species and possibly a large undiscovered oilfield.

Since 1980 -- despite efforts by Presidents Reagan and Bush to open up the area -- Congress has kept the coastal plain off limits to drilling. But a new breed is now in charge on Capitol Hill. Non-binding budget resolutions passed by both houses would open up the refuge in order to help balance the budget over the next seven years. Meanwhile, Mr. Young has proposed a freestanding bill that would achieve the same objective.

The revenue argument is weak. Even if there is oil under the plain, Government royalties would not surface for years. Under the most optimistic scenario,there is a 50 percent chance that the coastal plain will produce 3.5 billion barrels of oil. This would be a huge find for any oil company but only six months of United States oil consumption at best. Any number of known efficiency measures could achieve the same end without violating an innocent landscape with a vast spider web of rigs, pipelines, drilling pods and airfields.

In recent testimony before Mr. Young's committee, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt attacked the economic arguments but also made a valuable larger point. Opening up the refuge, he said, would be an ethical calamity, "the equivalent of offering Yellowstone National Park for geothermal drilling, or calling for bids to construct hydropower dams in the Grand Canyon. We can find a better way to produce energy and conserve our natural heritage.'' He is right. Congress should not be seduced by its acquisitive members from Alaska.