- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

The sharp rise in gasoline prices in recent weeks had led to the usual paranoia in certain quarters about a conspiracy on the part of Big Oil to bilk the little guy. Well, there may be a conspiracy afoot. But it’s less likely to consist of corporate executives ganging up on the public than of environmental lobbyists who have been openly colluding for decades to block oil exploration, development and refining, one reason dependence on foreign oil has climbed dramatically despite decades of chatter about energy independence.

If radical Greens get their way, blackouts would soon become regular events and our living standards would quickly regress to the level of, say, North Korea. The Bush administration is making a renewed effort to push an energy bill through Congress that, among other things, would open a relatively small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. But the very thought enrages Greens. In their view, Man is an intruder on Nature — indeed, a cancer on the Earth — and should be banished from such supposed Edens.

Indeed, the wildlife refuge idea sprang not from the brow of government but from a wide variety of private conservation groups, many dating to the mid- to late-19th century. The Audubon Society, for example, which dates back to 1886, was a leader in the sanctuary movement in an effort to protect dwindling numbers of songbirds. The government didn’t get into the act until 1903, when — ironically — Audubon pushed Teddy Roosevelt to allow Audubon to take over Pelican Island, a government-owned spit of land off the coast of Florida.

Audubon’s goal was to protect brown pelicans, egrets and other showy birds from poachers who were making a tidy fortune selling feathers to women’s hat makers. It was even willing to pay for “game wardens” to patrol the island.

Roosevelt refused to sell, however. Instead he turned Pelican Island into the first national wildlife refuge. The federal refuge system, whose centennial is being observed this year, has since grown to 540 preserves covering 95 million acres.

Yet not everybody views this as an unalloyed good. Audubon itself, in a recent article in its magazine, complained that 200 of the federal refuges don’t even have on-site staff and that most of the rest are drastically underfunded. R.J. Smith, a former Audubon chapter president in New Jersey who now runs the Washington-based Center for Private Conservation, argues that wildlife might even have been better off if the conservation movement had been mostly left to private hands.

“Government bureaucrats don’t make the best stewards of the land,” Mr. Smith avers.

Moreover, clashes like that over ANWR might have been averted. The Audubon Society, after all, has occasionally resorted to a mixed-use policy on its own sanctuaries. For example, it allowed oil drilling and production at both its 26,000-acre Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Louisiana and its 897-acre Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Michigan. This raised badly needed funds for other projects and helped pay for first-class management of the reserves themselves.

Mike Boyce, resident manager of the Baker Sanctuary north of Battle Creek, Mich., home to 11 nesting pairs of Greater Sandhill Cranes (and stopover point for thousands of cranes during the fall migration) notes that oil production ended in the 1970s. But by requiring that slant drilling be done from adjacent land and imposing seasonal limits on the activity, the effect on wildlife was negligible.

So herewith a modest proposal: Auction off a portion of ANWR, as well as other federal or state lands that might contain energy resources, to Audubon and other responsible environmental outfits. If they want to maintain the land in so-called pristine condition, fine. At least they would be putting their money where their mouth is.

But they would have a high incentive to permit some drilling, which would have some salutary effects: Americans would gain access to billions of barrels of oil, the flora and fauna would benefit from caring management — and it wouldn’t cost taxpayers a cent. And we would spared further tiresome debate over a tiny tract of land in a place that few Americans will ever see.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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