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Land Trade Would Allow Drilling in Refuge

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given preliminary approval to a land exchange in Alaska that would allow a Native-owned energy company to drill for oil on 110,000 acres within the nation’s third-largest wildlife refuge along a remote section of the Yukon River.

The deal has the support of Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who set a deadline for the agreement in a rider to an appropriations bill pending in Congress.

The land swap not only would allow oil drilling within the 9-million-acre Yukon Flats refuge, which borders the more famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it could necessitate the building of roads and a pipeline through wetlands that Fish and Wildlife had nominated for wilderness protection in 1987.

Native groups that live near the river oppose the deal because of potential harm to wildlife, including salmon, waterfowl, caribou and moose. Critics also note that the Fairbanks-based oil company has paid millions of dollars in fines for dumping toxic waste at drilling sites on Alaska’s North Slope.

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“This deal is an open-door invitation to carve out any piece of refuge for commercial gain,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, Fish and Wildlife Service director under President Clinton and now executive vice president of the group Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s really an affront to what it means to be a national wildlife refuge.”

As part of the deal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would convey land in the middle of the refuge to Doyon Ltd. in return for isolated parcels owned by the company elsewhere in the refuge.

The corporation, owned by Alaskan Athabaskan Indians, has more than 12 million acres of land in the state, making it one of North America’s largest landowners, according to the company’s website.

Under the terms of the exchange, Doyon also would have the right to explore for oil under an additional 96,000 acres in the refuge, using a technique known as directional drilling that does not disturb the surface of the ground.

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Critics of the deal, including environmentalists and former government scientists, said that man-made disturbances of wildlife habitat, as well as oil spills and industrial pollutants, would pose serious threats.

Gary Lawrence, executive director of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government in the village of Fort Yukon, which lies within the Yukon Refuge, said subsistence hunting accounted for 75% of the residents’ dietary needs. He said that villagers hunted for salmon, moose, ducks and geese in the refuge to supplement their diets.

“A gallon of milk is $8 here, so we need this [hunting] to offset the high cost of living,” Lawrence said.

The lands in the national wildlife refuge system are the only federal lands specifically dedicated to wildlife conservation. Refuges in Alaska allow Native peoples to hunt animals within their borders for subsistence.

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In return for the 110,000 acres, Doyon would transfer to the federal government about 150,000 acres of wetlands the company owns elsewhere in the Yukon Flats, said Jerry Stroebele, regional chief of refuges in Alaska for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The exact number of acres will be determined after the land being swapped is appraised. The appraisal value will hinge on estimated oil reserves under the 110,000 acres sought by Doyon. Stevens’ committee appropriated nearly half a million dollars to assess oil reserves in a broad region encompassing the Yukon Flats.

The plan would establish a royalty fund to purchase up to 120,000 additional acres of Doyon land in the refuge, which refuge managers hope will contain valuable wetlands.

Stroebele said some estimates of reserves under Yukon Flats reach as high as a billion barrels, but Rick Stanley, the U.S. Geological Survey geologist in charge of the three-year study, said, “At the moment it’s fairly speculative. It is an area where one could potentially find energy resources. We won’t know until it’s drilled.”

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The Bush administration and Alaska’s congressional delegation have sought to drill within the neighboring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at sites hundreds of miles north of the Yukon Flats.

Stevens “encouraged us to negotiate and come to an agreement,” Stroebele said. “He’s probably looking out for the economic well-being of his constituents. [Through the rider], he’s directing us to do it.”

Stevens, who was traveling in Alaska, could not be reached for comment, and a Doyon executive did not return phone calls.

Although Stevens’ rider sets a Dec. 31 deadline for the agreement, Stroebele said the senator’s staff had indicated that Stevens would go along with a new deadline of Sept. 30, 2005.

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Doyon has tried twice before in the last 20 years to persuade the federal government to allow drilling within the preserve, but was rebuffed both times by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Do we want an industrial complex in the middle of a national wildlife refuge? Not really,” Stroebele said.

But he said that because Doyon controlled scattered tracts within the refuge, the company already had the right to drill in numerous locations. With this deal, said Stroebele, the government was hoping to confine the drilling to one area and minimize the effects.

“We would have no control over existing lands if they had decided to drill. We would have had to give them rights of way for pipelines anyway.”

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