Environmental groups are crowing while Alaska's congressional delegation is condemning the Obama administration's announcement Monday that it will consider proposing new wilderness designations within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Nearly half of ANWR has already been declared wilderness, a designation that carries strict restrictions on human activities to protect high conservation-value lands. The Interior Department now will consider recommending designations on the rest of the area — including land above oil reserves on Alaska's coastal plain.
Interior does not have the power to create any new wilderness areas. That can only be done through an act of Congress. Instead, Interior can recommend Congress consider certain lands for the designation, said Bruce Woods, an Alaska office spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior agency conducting the review.
"We're a long way from that," Woods said.
But they are too close for comfort for Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D), who favor developing the refuge's oil reserves. They took turns ripping the administration's plans this week.
Murkowski called the reviews a "blatant political move by the administration" in an Associated Press interview, and Begich said they were "a colossal waste of limited resources."
"We should use those resources to develop the enormous oil and gas reserves believed to be beneath the coastal plain," Begich said…
But while the lawmakers fume, environmental groups are heralding the move as a step in the right direction.
"We are confident that because the [ANWR] has pre-eminent wilderness values … this process will lead to a strong wilderness recommendation to the U.S. Congress," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
The group pushed the administration to propose wilderness on the coastal plain, saying it was the heart of the ecosystem ANWR was set up to protect. "The arctic refuge is one of the last true wilderness areas left in the United States," Shogan said. "Some places are just too special to sacrifice to oil and gas development."
Woods said both sides may be getting ahead of themselves…
"Regardless of what we do and what anyone does, only Congress can designate wilderness and only Congress can open it to oil and gas drilling."
The administration's decision to consider suggesting new wilderness does not necessarily mean it intends to do so, Woods said…
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