On a chilly June afternoon several years ago, I sat for hours on a muddy sandbar, entranced as a seemingly endless procession of migrating caribou swam across a northwestern Alaska river. The air was filled with splashing, the grunting of cows, the answering calls of their calves. Perhaps some 2,000 animals passed by.
You might think this occurred in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the state's most famous caribou habitat. But it was actually about 200 miles to the west, in a remote, roughly 23-million-acre chunk of federal land known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). Set aside in 1923 to provide fuel to the military, it has yet to produce any energy for commercial use. It's rich with wildlife, though -- some 400,000 caribou, plus grizzlies, polar bears, wolves, wolverines, peregrine falcons, brant geese, spectacled eiders and more. Many Inupiaq villages rely on subsistence hunting here.
Now, the Bureau of Land Management is about to issue the final version of its first-ever comprehensive plan for the NPR-A. Surprisingly enough, the agency intends to put about half of the "petroleum" reserve off-limits to drilling. Conservationists are cheering, while energy developers and pro-industry Alaskan officials seethe.
Although the BLM has taken a lot of heat from environmentalists for cozying up to oil and gas, its NPR-A plan is an earnest attempt to strike a reasonable balance between natural resources preservation and energy extraction. "NPR-A has important (wildlife and subsistence) values that Interior and BLM wanted to protect," says Jim Ducker, the environmental program analyst who coordinated the plan. "This is what management feels is the appropriate balance right now."
The BLM took over NPR-A's management from the Navy in 1976. Congress directed it to set aside "special areas" of critical wildlife habitat, and a few years later instructed the agency to begin leasing lands for oil and gas. Given the region's ruggedness and lack of roads and bridges, plus uncertainty about federal intentions, it's not surprising that industry interest has been low. So far, about 6 percent of the reserve (about 1.5 million acres) has been leased. The most recent sale, in November, offered 4.5 million acres, but only two companies bid, on a total of 160,000 acres.
According to a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey estimate, the reserve theoretically holds about 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 900 million barrels of oil -- enough oil to supply the U.S. for 47 days. That's just a fraction of the agency's 2002 estimate, though, and the reassessment, along with new information about climate change's impacts on wildlife, prompted the BLM to write a reserve-wide plan, replacing existing piecemeal plans.
The agency's "preferred alternative" in that plan allows access to about 549 million barrels of oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of gas considered economically feasible to extract, and allows for construction of pipelines and other infrastructure after further study. It also protects coastal areas vital to marine mammals, raptor nesting areas, and crucial calving, waterfowl and subsistence-hunting regions. "The Obama administration picked the most restrictive management plan possible," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in a critical statement.
But no plan lasts forever, says Ducker, and the balance could shift, especially if energy companies discover substantial oil in the waters adjoining the reserve. Offshore development could spur the construction of a pipeline across NPR-A to carry oil to the existing Trans-Alaska pipeline. "If the infrastructure is right there, the economics change," he says, "and that could tip the balance toward offering more (land) in the future."
While drafting the plan, the BLM held public meetings and took more than 400,000 comments from tribes, businesses, conservation groups, and state, local and federal agencies. But Alaska walked out of the planning process in September. State officials had long been pushing for large-scale development, and were outraged by the BLM's intention to withhold so much land. Gov. Sean Parnell, R, wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stating that the federal agency "shows a complete lack of respect for the views of the state."
That's a sharp contrast to how the BLM often operates. Although the agency has made a top-down effort to restore the balance between resource development, conservation and recreation, energy production still frequently takes priority. Elsewhere in Alaska, for instance, management plans for the Kobuk-Seward Peninsula, Ring of Fire, and Eastern Interior (in draft stage) regions opened the vast majority of lands to energy companies.
And in the Lower 48, the Vernal, Utah, field office has been roundly criticized for its close ties to industry -- allowing gas exploration that threatened Indian rock art and ruins, rarely prosecuting violations, and weakening wildlife and air-quality protections. In October, Stan Olmstead, a retiring natural resources specialist from that office, sent his colleagues a scathing three-page letter: "At the Vernal Office … we promote energy development without stop and continue to measure natural resources by dollar value. …"
Former BLM head Bob Abbey, who retired in May, recently told High Country News why he left the agency for the first time in 2005: "One of the reasons was my frustration with how the BLM was being managed. The primary emphasis was to make as many acres as possible available for oil and gas leasing and production, and that overtook other important programs."
"The BLM is (still) in the back pocket of industry," says Ken Rait of Pew Trust's Western Lands Project, a conservation initiative focused on public land. "But there's real interest in figuring out a better balance." Under Abbey and Salazar, significant reforms have occurred, and some sensitive parcels have been pulled from auctions. But in the BLM's decentralized, slow-to-evolve culture, a push toward conservation from the top doesn't always get translated into action on the ground.
Nonetheless, observers expect the BLM's final decision, due soon, to uphold the preferred alternative for this globally significant area. And if it does, says Rait, "we will look at this as the crowning conservation accomplishment of the Obama administration's first term. Yes, they've established four national monuments --but this is a whole lot more land."