ANCHORAGE - Alaska's U.S. senators say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no business conducting reviews of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to see if more areas should be designated as wilderness.
The service announced Monday it will review three areas of the refuge, including the coastal plain, believed to contain an estimated 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski reacted with an angry press statement, warning the agency not to trample on a promise of "no more wilderness" made to Alaska in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
"This is a blatant political move by the administration and clearly violates the promise of no more administrative wilderness designations in Alaska," Murkowski said.
A wilderness designation would preclude petroleum drilling. The agency lacks authority to conduct wilderness reviews in Alaska without consent of Congress, she said.
"Congress has given no such approval," Murkowski said. "This is a waste of time and taxpayer money and it's a proposed waste of the oil and natural gas resources that belong to all Americans."
The Alaska congressional delegation - Murkowski, Democrat Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Rep. Don Young - wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in May, objecting to any additional wilderness reviews. About 8 million acres - or about 12,500 square miles - of the more than 19-million-acre refuge in northeast Alaska already is designated as wilderness.
Begich said Monday he has long been opposed to more time or taxpayer money being spent on further wilderness reviews.
"This is a colossal waste of limited resources, and we should use those resources to develop the enormous oil and gas reserves believed to be beneath the coastal plain," he said.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the agency's decision is a response to public comment made as the agency updated its Comprehensive Conservation Plan.
Bruce Woods said his understanding of the "no more" promise was that no new conservation areas would be designated without approval of Congress. Designating wilderness within a conservation area, he said, was a management change.
"It would simply modify the management regime for a conservation area," he said.
He also noted that all the agency can do is study and make a recommendation. Any wilderness designation must be approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service director, the Interior secretary, the president and Congress itself.
"We have no authority to either designate wilderness or open any part of the refuge to oil and gas development," he said.
Murkowski said Alaska already contains 58 million acres of federal land designated as wilderness, an area larger than New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
Murkowski, defeated in the Alaska GOP primary and now mounting a write-in campaign, pledged to "de-authorize and defund" any attempt to further restrict responsible development of Alaska's natural resources.
"Congress designated the coastal plain of ANWR for oil and gas exploration more than three decades ago, but we continue to have to be vigilant against bureaucratic attempts to lock up Alaska's resources," she said.
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