Grass roots prevail in ANWR and Wyoming

Conservationists chalk up two big victories — but they’re bracing for a long war

  • Tim Brinton
  • "My goal was to do good environmental analysis." - KniffyHamilton, Bridger-Teton National Forest

    David O Connor
 

Two days before the Department of the Interior celebrated the 100th anniversary of the nation’s wildlife refuge system, Interior Secretary Gale Norton stood before the U.S. House Committee on Resources and described Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as “flat, white nothingness.”

As overseer of the nation’s refuge system, she urged committee members to support legislation that would open a portion of the 19 million-acre refuge to oil and gas drilling. Norton’s audience was receptive: The House had already voted once, in August 2001, to lift a ban on drilling in ANWR, and is expected to approve it again this month within the House energy bill.

But in mid-March, 52 members of the U.S. Senate ignored Norton’s advice, and closed the most recent chapter on drilling in ANWR. Opponents of drilling had threatened to filibuster any proposal to open the refuge, so supporters had tacked ANWR onto the 2004 Congressional Budget, which cannot be filibustered. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., foiled supporters’ plans and introduced an amendment to remove ANWR from the budget. By a narrow — and almost entirely partisan — vote, the Senate approved Boxer’s amendment, upholding the ban on drilling in the refuge.

The Senate vote marked a substantial victory for the environmental movement; the Bush administration had vowed to prioritize drilling in the Arctic, and the oil and gas industry had pumped millions of dollars into lobbying and public relations campaigns in support of drilling.

What made the movement to protect ANWR so successful, says Adam Kolton of the National Wildlife Federation, was “people outside the Beltway” — the millions of Americans who wrote letters to their senators and representatives, the scientific community, and religious and native leaders.

“We (did) what we do best: grassroots organizing,” says Dan Lavery, conservation assistant for lands-protection issues for the Sierra Club. “And in D.C., we met with our congressional champions, focused on them, and looked for those swing votes.”

But ANWR’s protection isn’t guaranteed: Although Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a supporter of drilling and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has promised that ANWR will not be included within a draft of the Senate energy bill, Washington insiders say it’s only a matter of time before drilling proponents try again to sneak the provision through.

“There are a lot of different ways that proponents have tried to open (ANWR) to drilling,” says Lexi Keogh with the Alaska Wilderness League. “We’re just taking it one step at a time, and fighting it every step of the way.”

The people speak in Wyoming

While national attention has been focused on Alaska’s North Slope, there’s been plenty of action in the Lower 48, too.

In early March, Carole “Kniffy” Hamilton, supervisor of Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest, upheld a draft decision to keep oil and gas companies off 376,000 acres of the forest east and south of Grand Teton National Park (HCN, 3/26/01: Forest supervisor faces down oil drilling). In March 2001, the Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement that proposed to deny oil and gas leases within four units, or 11 percent, of the forest. Two years passed — an unprecedented amount of time between a draft and final EIS — and some environmentalists worried that Hamilton would buckle to political pressure, and open the areas to oil and gas drilling.

But in a letter dated March 7, Hamilton informed the Bureau of Land Management — the agency that administers subsurface mineral leases in the forest — that her final decision was to deny oil and gas leasing. She pointed out that 18 percent of the forest is already open to leasing, and the Forest Service’s priority is to address a backlog of leases within that area. “My goal was to do good environmental analysis, and make sure that we had all the information to come to the proper decision,” says Hamilton.

But as at ANWR, much of the credit for this decision goes to the grassroots efforts of the public. During the project’s public comment period, more than 11,000 Wyoming residents wrote letters and attended hearings — and most supported the “preferred alternative” that kept the oil and gas industry out. The Teton County commissioners passed a resolution supporting the Forest Service’s preferred alternative, and the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce also supported keeping the oil and gas industry out of “sensitive areas” of the national forest. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., even wrote a letter to Wyoming residents who commented on the plan, saying that while other areas in the state are “more appropriate” for oil and gas exploration, Bridger-Teton should be protected.

“The Forest Service should be commended,” says Peter Aengst, a regional associate with The Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont. “It took them a while, but they listened to the public. This has given me hope that the (public) process can work.”

“Little Arctic refuges”

Oil and gas executives may be wringing their hands over the loss of potential revenue from drilling in the Arctic and the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but conservationists are bracing for more fights over energy production on public lands.

“What the Senate did last week was a huge victory, but it’s by no means over,” says the Sierra Club’s Lavery. “With Congress as anti-conservation as they are after last November’s election, we expect they’ll be more aggressive going after public lands, particularly in the West.”

One week after Interior Secretary Norton testified in support of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Assistant Secretary Rebecca Watson stood before the same House Committee on Resources and announced that natural gas from coal beds under public lands should play a role in meeting the nation’s energy demands (HCN, 9/2/02: Backlash). In support of President Bush’s Energy Plan, the BLM is now completing plans to expand drilling in the San Juan Basin in Colorado and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Watson also explained that the BLM is developing policies to “streamline” the permitting process for drilling.

Sen. Domenici has already drafted legislation for a pilot program for what he calls “one-stop shopping” of federal permits for oil and gas production in New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. Under the pilot program, the BLM would issue drilling permits, not only for its own lands, but also for lands under the control of the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

As the Bush administration’s focus turns increasingly toward the Rocky Mountain region, conservationists are likely to use the same tactics that worked in their fight to preserve the Arctic Refuge and to support the Forest Service’s decision in Wyoming — rallying public support, and making sure elected officials hear about it.

“We need to make all these places in the Rocky Mountains (like) little Arctic refuges,” says Chuck Clusen of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In their own way, these are special places that deserve protection; they’re still important in the scheme of saving the last wild places.”

The writer is an assistant editor for High Country News.

You can contact ...

      Alaska Wilderness League, 202/544-5205;
      The Wilderness Society, Bozeman, Mont., 406/586-1600;
       • Natural Resources Defense Council, 202/289-6868.
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