Tentative Alaska Land Swap Raises Drilling Fears
ANCHORAGE, Alaska U.S. officials announced a tentative land swap this week that they say would enlarge an Alaska wildlife refuge but that critics charge would open up the area to oil and gas development.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it planned to trade land within the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, an 8.6 millionacre holding in eastern interior Alaska, for wetlands now held by Doyon Ltd., a Fairbanks, Alaskabased corporation owned by Alaska Athabascan Indians.
Doyon, which has drilling operations, seeks 110,000 acres of uplands with potential oil and gas riches and is willing to trade about 150,000 acres of low-lying wetlands for it, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Including Doyon promises to give up claims to other land, the refuge would wind up with a net increase of 96,000 acres, agency officials said.
The trade, which has been approved by Doyon and by the Fish and Wildlife Service's Alaska headquarters, would protect important waterfowl habitat, they added.
But critics call it a giveaway of public resources that would open the Yukon Flats area, and perhaps others, to oil and gas drilling.
"If they get this passed and drill right in our backyard, it'll set a precedent to open all of the other refuges for other development," said Gary Lawrence, executive director of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government, an Athabascan tribal government in Fort Yukon that has opposed oil development in the region.
Peter Rafle, a Washington-based spokesman for The Wilderness Society, said that there was a risk that oil leaks and spills would flow downstream into the very wetlands officials say they are trying to protect.
The prospect of Yukon Flats oil development has attracted less attention than the Bush administrationbacked plan to allow drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, favors the Yukon Flats land swap and has inserted language into a pending Interior Department appropriations bill that provides funding for the trade and sets a Dec. 31 deadline.
"It's a trade of good land for bad land," said Stevens press secretary Courtney Schikora. "I'm not sure what the argument is against it."
A biological review, approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Washington headquarters, and a public comment period are still required before the trade is completed, said agency spokesman Bruce Woods.