Hundreds protest drilling in arctic refuge

Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Hundreds rallied in Washington outside the Capitol to protest oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of a weeklong lobbying effort by environmental groups.

Politicians and protesters from across the country joined a contingent of Alaskans at the rally on the west lawn of the Capitol.

Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut on Tuesday described a two-pronged fight to save ANWR and wean the nation from its dependence on oil.

He said the goal is "yes, to protect ANWR, but beyond that, to break this great nation of an addiction."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., encouraged the crowd to pressure members of Congress in their home states who support drilling.

Many speakers emphasized the threat that oil development poses to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which often calves on ANWR's coastal plain and which is hunted by the Gwich'in Athabascans of the Yukon and Old Crow flats.

A few counter-protesters came to the gathering, wearing signs that said "Say no to ANWR - Say yes to Saudi Oil" and "opposed to ANWR? Ride a bike home."

In the ANWR debate, each side claims Alaska Native support. The 65 Alaska Native protesters Tuesday were featured prominently. Some wore name tags identifying their hometowns: Akiak, Chevak, Kaktovik, Point Hope, Togiak.

The Gwich'in say they depend on the caribou that breed in the refuge, and have been the most visible Natives against ANWR development.

The Gwich'in say they have the support of many tribal groups, including the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corp., owned by Inupiat Eskimos, and the Alaska Federation of Natives have endorsed development.

Whether half of Alaskans or some lesser percentage oppose ANWR drilling set off a lengthy discussion among the Alaska contingent and Alaska congressional aides.

Chuck Kleeschulte from Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office said drilling would bring billions of dollars to the state.

The money could pay for schools and other services that the group had been complaining were not coming fast enough to rural Alaska, he said.

Elise Wolf of Homer, whose family moved to Anchorage before oil arrived, said she'd gladly give up her Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check if the industry would leave. Tourism is the industry for Alaska, she said.

Kleeschulte said the millions earned in tourism weren't likely to replace the billions earned by oil.

Drilling supporters are pinning their hopes on a budget package Congress is supposed to consider next month. The budget reconciliation bill is likely to contain an ANWR development measure and would be immune to Senate filibuster.

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