Reporting from Seattle — Amid strong signs that the new Republican majority in the U.S. House will renew attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas drilling, key legislators and some of the nation's top environmental groups launched a campaign Friday to designate the refuge as a national monument.
The drive to persuade the Obama administration to give the 19-million-acre refuge the kind of national recognition afforded the giant sequoia groves of California or the Grand Canyon is an attempt, conservation groups say, to head off a nearly inevitable push to launch exploratory drilling in the refuge's wildlife-rich coastal plain.
The refuge, east of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, "is truly one of America's great wild places," said a letter to President Obama signed by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and 23 other senators. The letter is the latest salvo in a three-decade controversy over what could be one of America's biggest remaining untapped onshore oil reserves.
The refuge is also an important habitat for polar bears, grizzlies, musk oxen and large numbers of birds, and is the calving area for more than 100,000 caribou that make one of the last great herd migrations in North America.
Separately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying the entire refuge, including the possibility of designating all of it as protected wilderness.
A monument designation would not have the same level of protection as wilderness status, but it would almost surely prohibit most forms of development.
"Giving the refuge monument status will help block the monumentally shortsighted attempts from oil companies and their allies in Congress to open up one of our last pristine wilderness areas to dangerous drilling practices," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in a separate statement.
Conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Audubon Society and the Alaska Wilderness League, said in their own letter that the 50-year anniversary of the refuge on Dec. 6 provides an important opportunity for Obama, who has historically opposed oil drilling in the refuge, to provide permanent protection by designating it a monument.
President Clinton considered a similar proposal in the waning days of his administration but decided against it because, his spokesman said at the time, oil drilling is already prohibited unless Congress votes otherwise.
That is precisely what conservation groups fear. The likely incoming head of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), has said promoting new domestic energy production, including in the Arctic, will be a priority.
The law that established the refuge sets aside 1.5 million acres for possible oil and gas development, dependent on Congress' approval. This has set the stage for the House on a few occasions over the years to move forward with drilling proposals.
The proposals have been blocked in the Senate, where the refuge has many defenders. There are few signs the Senate next year would act differently.
Still, conservationists say they believe monument designation could remove the refuge from annual drilling debates.
"Traditionally, we've always had a lot of support from Republicans, but there aren't many moderate Republicans left in Congress," said Lauren Hierl, Arctic Refuge campaign director for the Alaska Wilderness League.
Adrian Herrera, spokesman for Arctic Power, a coalition of drilling advocates in Washington that promotes the refuge's development, said there were no immediate prospects for advancing drilling legislation. Drilling supporters see the vast refuge as one of the nation's best chances to boost the domestic energy supply.
"The one thing that moves the issue without question is the price of gasoline," he said. "If the price of gasoline goes up, votes change overnight."
But designating the 1.5-million-acre oil and gas area as a monument would run into immediate legal challenges, Herrera said. The federal law that governs most of the federal conservation lands in Alaska prohibits withdrawing any additional lands potentially available for state use without congressional authorization.
"You can write all the letters you want to Mr. Obama, but it is a waste of time, and it won't make any difference," he said, adding that any attempt to impose wilderness protections on the oil and gas area would also "bring all holy hellfire from Capitol Hill."
Dan Ritzman, the Sierra Club's Alaska director, said the "no more withdrawal" prohibition does not apply because the entire refuge already has been withdrawn for conservation purposes.
"And I do believe it's important for the Obama administration to sort of give it this extra protection to honor it as this iconic, important place in our national heritage," he said.