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Of oil and caribou

CONGRESS is in the midst of deciding whether to maintain the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska (ANWR) as a refuge and wilderness or to open up part of it for oil and gas exploration. Nearly eight years ago in the Alaska Lands Bill, the people decided not to decide and left open the resolution of several difficult issues. Although the United States Department of Interior is claiming that society can have its cake and eat it too, that wildlife will not be destroyed with development, this contention is open to considerable dispute.

The Interior Department itself acknowledges that the wilderness character of the region will be lost with the intrusion of thousands of people, hundreds of miles of roads, airfields, seaports, settling ponds, and millions of dollars' worth of buildings and facilities. The justification given is that the refuge is simply another wilderness, one among many already established.

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The issue is producing a wide range of responses in Congress, from full development to wilderness proposals.

Part of the push to develop the refuge stems from the severe downturn in the Alaskan economy following the decline of the oil boom at Prudhoe Bay, which has led many locals to look for other oil development opportunities in the state to restore economic growth.

The development also fits into the Reagan administration's energy strategy. As William Horn, assistant secretary of the interior, recently said in Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is its No. 1 energy priority; aesthetics don't justify keeping it in wilderness.

What are the chances of finding oil or gas, and what are the implications for US energy supplies? The Department of Interior estimates a 50 percent chance of finding the equivalent of seven months' domestic oil consumption.

The proposed development would be spread out over 1 million acres, even though, as the Interior Department likes to point out, facilities would occupy only 13,000 acres. But because the plain is unbroken by trees or hills, the effect would be the same as if the whole million acres were occupied.

Perhaps most important, nearly all the wildlife traverse both the plain and mountains. Generally people are aware of the migration of the caribou between the two. Also, there is the wandering of Alaska brown bears (grizzly), polar bears, wolves, and the Arctic char that live in the ocean and spawn 90 miles inland in the mountains.

Congress is being pressed to draw a boundary around a piece of the plain for development and ``leave'' the mountains in wilderness, but the land doesn't allow such a convenient distinction. Society can't avoid tough choices by drawing meaningless lines on maps.

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The Interior Department's 1987 own environmental-impact statement on ANWR predicted that full-scale oil development would have significant effects on the caribou, musk ox, wolf, wolverine, brown bear, polar bear, and snow goose. Yet the report concludes that this development meets the nation's goals.

The conclusion on caribou is a good case in point. The impact statement says 37 percent of the caribou's calving area could be affected under full development, and there is a risk of a population decline. Yet, the secretary of the interior concludes that ``caribou can coexist successfully with oil development.''

Society must also decide whether it meets the nation's goals to have similar significant effects on the wolves, brown bears (grizzly), polar bears, snow geese, and musk oxen in the refuge. Oil development would permanently alter the land, native culture, and wildlife.

Many challenge the view that the refuge is just another wilderness. In fact the US has only this one natural ecological system of plains and mountains facing the Arctic Ocean. Alaska has many remarkable features, but none like ANWR.

One would not argue for filling in San Francisco Bay for development just because California has lots of other special places. If society decides to permit oil and gas development in ANWR, it should be aware that it would be choosing to eliminate a natural treasure.

As the Department of Interior's own report notes, the proposed development will have major sociocultural effects on the Eskimo and Indian cultures. Native people in Alaska have learned that development booms shift them to cash economies but then leave them unable or unwilling to return to subsistence living in the following declines.

Proposed development is also generating a schism between the Eskimos and Athabascan (Gwitchin) Indians. The Gwitchin, who live inland in the refuge, are dependent on migrating caribou for their livelihood. The Eskimo corporations are in favor of the proposed development, and the Interior Department recently traded them into an oil-potential area in ANWR in exchange for Eskimo-owned wildlands in other parts of the state.

As wilderness participants know, a change in perspective comes over anyone who allows him- or herself to be immersed in a natural setting such as ANWR. One feels more sure of self and more easily sees the connections between all aspects of life.

As complex creatures, people also value the security and variety of civilization. If both needs are genuine, then at a core level one would hope that it is possible to have both. Given the incompatibility of wilderness and development in the refuge, one is inclined to feel puzzled and pressured to choose.

Why is the social system so resistant to shifting to an alternative path? It is obvious that society could obviate the need for the possible oil in the refuge simply by increasing conservation.

Technological growth and preservation of the natural environment do not have to be competing choices. We need to address the resistance of those who would lose with this choice. Assistance that brings these people back into the community restores the balance between growth and preservation.

Robert L. Swinth is professor of management and business at Montana State University.

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