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ANCHORAGE - America should not despoil the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with oil drilling rigs, former President Jimmy Carter said Wednesday, but that's not the most pressing environmental issue facing Alaska.
Alaska should be concerned with global warming, which is melting the state's glaciers, melting protective sea ice and leaving coastal villages vulnerable to the ravages of erosion, Carter said.
"I don't want to minimize my commitment to ANWR when I say this, but you might say Alaska is in the global forefront of the adverse effect of global warming," Carter said.
Carter spoke at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of a personal environmental triumph: passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
The sweeping measure he signed Dec. 2, 1980, added more than 100 million acres of Alaska into new or expanded national parks or refuges with an eye toward protecting ecosystems. The law doubled the size of the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System. It protected 25 Alaska rivers, almost doubling the Wild and Scenic River System. It also classified 56 million acres as wilderness, tripling the size of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
When he speaks in foreign countries, Carter said, he calls the Alaska lands act one if his most significant accomplishments, along with making human rights the foundation of America's foreign policy, improving relations with China, negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt and keeping the country at peace.
Development interests decried the legislation as locking up Alaska, blocking transportation routes to natural resources. The fallout remains today.
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, contends ANILCA promised Alaska the chance to explore for oil and gas within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said Stevens spokeswoman Courtney Schikora.
"That promise has not yet been delivered," she said.
Carter - whose effigy was once burned in Fairbanks when he withdrew acreage as national monuments, forcing the ANILCA compromise - said a public opinion poll now probably would show most Alaskans approving of the law. That's not reflected in the political arena, he said, where commercial interests continue to dominate.
Environmentalists, Alaska Natives seeking affirmation of subsistence hunting and fishing rights, the Alaska congressional delegation, state government and Americans elsewhere had a hand in the final solution.
"I think the final compromise suited me fine," Carter said.
He expects to continue a vocal role opposing petroleum drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northeast corner of the state. The refuge was expanded in 1980 to nearly 20 million acres, about the size of South Carolina, and is home to caribou, three kinds of bears, musk oxen and Dall sheep.
Drilling opponents did not imagine it would be explored for oil, he said.
"There was a general presumption that ANWR would be just as sacrosanct as was Yosemite or Yellowstone," Carter said.
He said 95 percent of Alaska's oil reserves were made available for exploration and production and 5 percent - most of it in ANWR - would be preserved.
Its oil would furnish what America uses for less than one year, he said. It would take 10 years to produce commercial quantities. Requiring sport utility vehicles to meet gas mileage standards of other vehicles would save more than the total projected production at ANWR, Carter said.
"I can give the argument on both sides," he said. "I just happen to believe it's better to preserve this area."
Drilling holds pitfalls for oil companies, he said.
"I would presume that the overwhelming majority of Americans would be extremely critical and maybe even punitive as consumers to oil companies that choose to drill in ANWR," he said. "I think they'll be stigmatized for despoiling this national treasure."