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Environmental sleight of hand in the Arctic?

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But the region is also one of the most ecologically valuable in the country. Each year, up to 60,000 geese of various species gather during the summer, where they shed the feathers on their wings and wait for them to regrow. The area is also home to 45,000 caribou, as well as many grizzlies, polar bears, and gray wolves.

The pristine area has long been respected by previous administrations. Even President Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, who advocates shooting environmentalists when legal methods fail to stop them, opted to protect 200,000 acres of the goose-molting area, a protection that was maintained by his three successors under Reagan and Bush I. In 1999, President Clinton's Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, expanded that region to 800,000 acres and opened the remaining portion of the northeast section of the petroleum reserve – 87 percent – to drilling.

Babbitt's protections lasted until January 2006, when the Interior Department scrapped them. A coalition of environmentalists and indigenous groups sued the government. In September of that year, a federal judge in Alaska blocked the drilling, ruling that the government had failed to conduct a sufficiently thorough study of the environmental impacts. At first blush, it looks as though the government has finally backed down, with Friday's announcement.

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