WASHINGTON - Opponents of offshore drilling - including some dressed as salmon and polar bears - delivered more than 250,000 postcards and letters to the Interior Department Monday on a proposal to open vast waters off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to oil and gas drilling.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar invited public comments on a sweeping blueprint for expanded offshore drilling that was initially proposed in the final days of the Bush administration. He didn't rule out expanded offshore drilling. But he criticized "the enormous sweep" of the Bush proposal, which envisioned energy development from New England to Alaska, including lease sales in areas off California and in the North Atlantic that have been off-limits for a quarter century.
The proposed five-year plan includes newly identified areas for drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast, which are home to polar bears, whales, seals, walruses and other wildlife. It also would allow drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed, home to the world's most productive wild salmon streams.
Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said Salazar should protect the environmentally sensitive areas, noting that species in the Arctic are already under significant environmental threat because of global warming.
"The American public has unequivocally said that Bush's aggressive plan for oil and gas development has no place in America's Arctic and Bristol Bay," said Shogan, whose group helped organize a lunchtime event outside the Interior Department. Monday was the last day for public comments on the drilling plan.
Demonstrators carrying signs and dressed in salmon hats - or in the case of wilderness league employee Stuart Campbell, a full-fledged salmon costume - called on Salazar to block oil and gas development off Alaska's coast. The group served fresh wild salmon from Bristol Bay and read comments from drilling opponents, including about 30 residents of Point Hope, a Native village whose residents stand to lose their way of life if drilling moves forward in the Arctic.
"I am really against oil drilling in the Arctic. Not for 75 percent, but absolutely for 100 percent. No drilling," said Alice Weber, 87, of Point Hope, in one of several postcards read aloud by demonstrators.
Organizers presented the postcards and letters to Kim Elton, director of Alaska Affairs for the Interior Department. Elton, a former Alaska senator from Juneau, declined to comment, but told group members he was happy to accept their remarks.
Salazar, who met with Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell last week, has said he's uncertain whether he will seek to put a new five-year drilling plan in place before the existing leasing program runs out in 2012.
A half-dozen Bristol Bay fishermen and Arctic residents held a news conference Monday in Anchorage to speak out against offshore drilling.
Nelson Lagoon fisherman Theo Chesley said the Bristol Bay salmon runs go right through one of the proposed drill sites.
"This renewable resource we cannot jeopardize any way, shape or form," he said. "That is why we are here today at the 11th hour. It's not no. It's heck no. We can't do this."
Earl Kingik from the Native village of Point Hope, said an oil spill in Arctic waters would destroy his traditional way of life.
"My community has been living off the ocean for thousands and thousand of years. We know all the sea mammals," Kingik said. "Without the bowhead whale, we are lost.
"Please listen Obama. Please listen Salazar," he said. "Keep our ocean clean."
Associated Press reporter Mary Pemberton in Anchorage contributed to this report.