South of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and heavily overshadowed by the national debate over it, a separate slice of protected Alaska landscape is being eyed for oil and gas drilling.
ANCHORAGE South of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and heavily overshadowed by the national debate over it, a separate slice of protected Alaska landscape is being eyed for oil and gas drilling.
A proposed land trade, also the subject of intense local debate, would change the borders of the 9 million-acre Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, giving some sections to an Alaska Native corporation that wants to extract the region's hydrocarbons.
Proponents say it would open up access to an oil and gas resource that could be on the scale of southern Alaska's Cook Inlet basin, while providing economic opportunities for the region's Athabascan Indians and improving the Yukon Flats refuge overall.
Opponents call it a stealth development ploy that would set a precedent for other refuges, and claim the resulting oil and gas drilling would bring more woes than benefits to local Athabascans.
The Yukon Flats refuge sits on the Arctic Circle, is crossed by the Yukon River and dotted with lakes, ponds, sloughs and muskeg. The basin holds a likely 173 million barrels of oil and 5.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to a U.S. Geological Survey estimate released last year.
Oil reserves could be as high as 592 million barrels and natural gas reserves as high as 14.6 trillion cubic feet , according to the USGS.
"It's one of those rare occasions when the whole question of resource development and resource protection meets in a good place," said Tadd Owens, executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska.
"This is very similar to the debate over the Arctic Refuge. You're talking about facilitating oil development in a national wildlife refuge. In a way, it's a little more sinister," said Noah Matson of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.
The debate has prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delay the deal, initially expected to be done by the end of 2004. The agency announced in May that it will do a full environmental impact study of the proposal, even though none is required by law.
"It was more controversial than we expected," said Jerry Stroebele, supervisor for national wildlife refuges in northern Alaska.
The refuge is cradled between two mountain ranges, in a location that gives it Alaska's most dramatic weather extremes. Winter temperatures plunge to the state's lowest depths; in summer, with around-the-clock sizzling sunlight, temperatures are among the Arctic's hottest.
Doyon Ltd., the Fairbanks-based Native corporation seeking to trade the land, agrees with the need for detailed environmental study.
"We're sorry we're having to move through this process, an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), because it does delay a couple of years our plans, but it seems like the right thing to do," said Norm Phillips, Doyon's resource manager.