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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - A state report says new guidelines allowing earlier travel by heavy equipment across sensitive North Slope tundra appear to be accurately predicting that the terrain will not be damaged.
Using the guidelines, the state on Dec. 6 opened parts of the North Slope to heavy oil exploration equipment. In the previous decade, the state usually had not allowed equipment on the tundra until January.
A Department of Natural Resources study said the guidelines developed in 2004 correctly predicted the effect of winter travel on the Arctic terrain.
The study monitored heavy equipment on the tundra this year and long-term effects of an earlier study paid for with federal dollars. Both showed that the new standards allowed no more effect than earlier management standards.
For 30 years, state officials had required that ground be frozen a foot deep and covered with at least 6 inches of snow before allowing vehicles to travel across the tundra.
The guidelines were not based on formal scientific analysis and were not written into state law or regulations. New standards are science-based, according to state officials.
The study has given the state a more precise and reliable tool to develop Alaska's resources while protecting the environment, said Natural Resources Commissioner Michael Menge.
The results mean allowing more time for oil companies to explore for oil and gas on the North Slope.
Conservation groups have said the early opening could lead to significant tundra damage.
Exploration companies say the extra month or six weeks allows them to travel more widely and reduce the number of winters it takes to study a site.
Exploration companies face other winter problems.
A warming trend has reduced the number of days oil companies can explore from about 200 days in 1970 to about 120 days in recent winters.
The follow-up study, which involved driving heavy equipment over the tundra at various temperatures and snow depths from late fall to early winter, was completed in October.
The study showed that tundra affected by the tests began recovering within two years. The state plans monitoring long-term effects of tundra travel.