Tour Rush Seen in Alaska Refuge before Oil Drilling
ANCHORAGE As Congress moves closer to approving the Bush administration's controversial plan for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, some Alaskans are expecting a rush of visitors who want to hike, raft and camp before any drilling starts.
"We're expecting to see some increases in visitation" because tourist interest in the Arctic refuge has climbed each time drilling appeared imminent, assistant refuge manager Joanna Fox said.
There was a jump in visitation in the late 1980s, an increase after George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, and another rise is expected now, she said.
Last week, the Senate voted to approve a Republican plan to allow drilling in the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The government says billion of barrels of oil could be extracted from the refuge, which is home to polar bears, moose, caribou and other wildlife.
The ANWR language is contained in a budget resolution to fund the federal government. The House and Senate budget plans differ sharply in some regards and may not be reconciled this year.
The wildlife refuge, about the size of South Carolina, offers a unique wilderness experience, said David van den Berg, owner of Arctic Wild, a Fairbanks company that sells guided trips to the refuge.
Since 2001, about 1,000 visitors have come to the refuge each year for rafting expeditions, camping trips, guided hunting trips and similar visits, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most visitors stayed for at least a week, the agency said.
Guide Wade Willis said many people who book tours with his company say they want to see the wildlife refuge before the landscape is dotted with roads, pipeline and lodging facilities.
Alaska politicians, almost all of them enthusiastic drilling backers, see the business interests of refuge tour guides as tiny compared to the potential economic benefits of ANWR development.
"Our focus is on jobs for Alaskans and on energy security for the country," said Becky Hultberg, press secretary for Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski. "When you look at the job estimates for ANWR, they're huge."