ANCHORAGE - Former President Jimmy Carter is urging President Clinton to declare the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a national monument before leaving office.
Carter said the coastal plain also should be granted full wilderness status. Such designations would close off the 1.5 million acres, which Carter called "a beautiful and precious place," to the prospect of future oil and gas development.
"This is something (Clinton) can do to end this controversy once and for all," said Carter, who visited the arctic refuge in the early 1990s during the annual caribou migration. "Once oil production started there, it would do irreversible damage."
Carter stated his lobbying plans at a gathering to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the landmark Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which set aside huge swaths of the state as national parks, refuges, forests and wilderness areas. Carter signed the still-divisive bill into law a month before his term ended.
The largely pro-preservation audience exploded with applause at Carter's intention to try to persuade Clinton. Many had fought to keep the oil rigs out of what they call a pristine and environmentally sensitive area.
Allen Smith, who heads the Wilderness Society's Alaska office, hailed the move, saying the former president's statement "indicates the international importance of the arctic refuge coastal plain."
Development-minded Alaskans, who want to drill for the billions of barrels of crude believed to lie beneath the coastal plain, denounced Carter's intentions as being against the national interest.
"Monument status for the coastal plain would needlessly lock up what could be the equivalent of 30 years of Saudi oil imports into the United States at a time when domestic production is falling and demand is steadily increasing," said Carl Portman, a spokesman for the Resource Development Council of Alaska.
U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republica, said when ANILCA was passed Congress specifically left the coastal plain open to development if done in an environmentally safe way.
"It is shortsighted and wrong to talk about closing the coastal plain when we should be talking about opening it," Murkowski said.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Tony Knowles said a monument designation done under the federal Antiquities Act of 1906 would circumvent ANILCA provisions that give Congress the final say when large blocks of federal land in Alaska are reclassified.
"(Knowles) will do all in his power to protect Alaskans from unilateral executive authority," said Claire Richardson. She said Knowles has expressed his opposition to monument status to Clinton and members of his administration.
Rumors have circulated for months that Clinton was thinking about blocking oil-industry access to the ANWR coastal plain.
Carter said he had no knowledge of how Clinton may be leaning.
"It depends on how much he hears from people up here who want it," Carter said. "I don't see it as a hopeless case at all."