Is there enough wilderness in Alaska?
The governor thinks so, but environmental groups aren't so sure. Both are watching as the state awaits the U.S. Interior Department's response to a request to prohibit wilderness reviews in Alaska.
Development generally is prohibited in wilderness areas.
Gov. Frank Murkowski reminded Interior Secretary Gale Norton of the request, made in 2001 by Alaska's congressional delegation, last month while he was in Washington, D.C., the governor's spokesman said.
"The governor is concerned about the idea that the Department of the Interior would create any more wilderness up here," said Murkowski spokesman John Manly. "Congress set aside all this wilderness, all these national parks and preserves, and we think that we ought to just stop there."
About 56 million acres, or 15 percent of the state, is designated wilderness, said Cam Toohey, the interior secretary's special assistant for Alaska. There are many more millions of acres that are not congressionally designated wilderness, but that are managed by the federal government as wilderness. The federal government owns about two-thirds of land in Alaska.
A policy instituted in 1981 by then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt, under President Reagan, said no further wilderness review was needed on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management unless called for by Congress. The BLM administers about 80 million acres - more than one-fifth of Alaska's land area.
In 2001, just a couple of days before the end of the Clinton administration's term, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reversed the Watt directive.
Alaska's congressional delegation first wrote to Norton last May asking for a reinstatement of the policy.
"There are dangerous traps set when reviewing areas for wilderness," the letter reads. "Once an area has been identified for wilderness study, the entire area is then managed as wilderness until Congress acts to release it."
In October, the delegation wrote another letter, this time asking the Interior Department to prohibit all new wilderness reviews, not just those on lands administered by the BLM. The new request includes lands under the authority of the National Wildlife Refuge System and the National Park System.
Toohey said the request is under review. It's not clear when the agency will decide on it.
In the meantime, environmental groups have become involved because of proposals for a new land plan for the National Petroleum Reserve, and they want the government to consider wilderness designation an option when it decides how to use the land.
"We think that the governor is completely wrong to make this request," said Tim Bristol, executive director of the Alaska Coalition. "We think that when the Bureau of Land Management looks at tens of millions of acres of land that they administer in Alaska, they should at least consider wilderness as part of their evaluation process. To strip the agency of that authority sets a terrible precedent."
The proposals involve 9 million acres in the northwest section of the petroleum reserve as the government prepares for an oil and gas lease in 2004, Toohey said. Four options are being considered, and one of them would set aside some of the land as wilderness. A second proposal would designate part of the land as a "special area." Lands that aren't necessarily wilderness but still merit protection, in the view of the BLM, can receive a special-area designation.
Public comment can be submitted on the proposals until March 14, and next week the BLM will conduct public meetings in Anchorage and Fairbanks on the subject. They will also hold meetings through the rest of the month in affected North Slope communities.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.