Again, an Assault on Alaska

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If at first you don’t succeed in despoiling an environmental treasure, try, try again. That’s apparently the White House motto for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate should stop President Bush again, as it has for two years now.

The Bush administration has been no friend to the Alaskan environment in recent months. In December, the Forest Service announced it would strip protections from the Tongass National Forest, allowing loggers to build roads to choice stands of old-growth trees. In January, the president’s budget brought back his twice-defeated proposal to sell oil leases in the wildlife refuge, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton approved a plan to open millions of acres of the North Slope to drilling and loosen requirements for environmental safeguards.

Of these, the annual presidential assault on the 19-million-acre wildlife refuge is hardest to fathom. It would take eight to 10 years to get at the oil, which, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, would meet the nation’s energy needs for only six months. A very modest increase in the fuel efficiency of the nation’s cars would save more oil than that.


Seven environmental groups have filed suit over the North Slope, which lies to the west of the refuge and for three decades has produced about a fifth of U.S. domestic oil. The suit rightly objects not to the drilling but to the lack of environmental safeguards for sensitive areas. Already, according to a report last year by the National Academy of Sciences, drilling in the North Slope has reduced the reproductive rate of caribou and birds and destroyed thousands of acres of tundra, mostly because of the roads built to serve the oil wells.

Road construction also would mean bulldozing swaths of the Tongass, which would be exempted from the no-road rule that now protects nearly 60 million acres of national forests. Logging big tracts of old-growth trees would be allowed. And federal subsidies would help build the roads, forcing the public to bear the costs of damaging the federal lands that belong to it. As with the wildlife refuge, it would take congressional action to stop the Tongass plan, probably by stripping funding for road subsidies. Fending off attacks on Alaska’s environment could become a time-consuming legislative job.