- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

When oil companies began work on Alaska's north slope at Prudhoe Bay several decades ago, Eskimos there opposed drilling operations for fear they would frighten off the caribou and other animals on which they subsisted. "There goes our way of life," they said. "The wildlife will go away. The fish will go away."
But as Eskimo official Oliver Leavitt told Tom Carter of The Washington Times this month, the much-feared caribou diaspora never happened. Far from running out of caribou, for example, the area is now teeming with them. From just 3,000 caribou in 1970, the Central Arctic Herd pictured nearby grew to almost 20,000 as of 1999. The projects may not be the caribou's idea of Viagra, but the oil pipelines, built on surfaces elevated above the plain, do provide a platform on which animals can find relief from the clouds of mosquitos and black flies below. Bears even walk atop the pipeline to go about their daily errands.
The 8,000 Eskimos now are so happy with the results that the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. which represents them is lobbying to open a tiny portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and development. For them it means jobs and revenue that would allow the community to enjoy such luxuries as schools and medical facilities that citizens in the lower 48 states take for granted. For the rest of the country, it would mean less dependence on foreign oil.
None of it may happen. Advocates of exploration in the arctic refuge are expecting a "November surprise" from President Clinton: a designation of the refuge as a national "monument" off-limits to drilling. Said a spokesman for Arctic Power, a nonprofit funded by the state of Alaska, "It's definite. The paperwork is done. It's just a matter of timing. President Clinton makes his environmental supporters happy, and we end up fighting over it in court for the next three to five years."
Why November? Well, there's the small matter of a presidential election that month. The administration may not want to risk roping off a potentially enormous supply of U.S. oil under the refuge at a time when consumers are already concerned about the rising costs of home heating oil and gasoline. The mere prospect of an October cold snap that generates high heating bills before the election is worrisome enough. There's also the fact that Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a proponent of arctic refuge exploration, heads the Senate Appropriations Committee. Better not to poke him in the eye with a monument declaration until he is safely out of town and can't block an item on the administration agenda.
The administration is on the record to the effect that it would never or probably would never do something like that. In June Energy Undersecretary Ernest Monzi told Alaska Sens. Stevens and Frank Murkowski, "I am personally unaware of that." Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has said he knows of no such plans and wouldn't endorse the designation if he did. Monument designations, of course, are the prerogative of the president. Mr. Clinton has already shown his willingness to work around unappreciative lawmakers and governors when he abruptly announced the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument in Utah, tipping off only Beltway reporters so they could be on hand to capture his environmental profile against a scenic backdrop.
So fearful of a monument designation are people in Alaska that its delegation to the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles briefly threatened to block a unanimous presidential nomination of Al Gore by withholding their votes from him. During a visit to Alaska this summer former President Jimmy Carter, the man who treated America to gas lines and cardigan heating during the '70s energy crisis, himself endorsed the creation of a monument. An irate Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, complained that it was easy for Mr. Carter to parade his generosity with someone else's land. "I can only guess," wrote Mr. Knowles, "how you would have felt as governor if a figure of national prominence had come to Georgia to use your state in a similar manner."
One hopes for Alaskans' sake that Mr. Clinton won't go through with the designation. If he can't bring himself to resist in the name of the American people, or of Alaskans or of the Eskimos, perhaps he could do it for the caribou.
E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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