Wilds vs. wealth


THE DECISION to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will have an enormous impact on the residents of Alaska -- and on that fragile wilderness environment.

Oil from Alaska's North Slope has transformed the lives of people living in that remote, vast state, as The Sun's Marego Athans reported in the series "Wilds vs. Wealth" that concludes today.

Oil profits fund schools, health clinics, satellite TV and air transportation links in long-neglected, isolated villages. Oil provides a yearly $2,000 check for residents, pays 80 percent of the state budget, and lets Alaskans forgo state income and sales taxes.

That wealth is fading with depleted fields, spurring hope of new discoveries and production to maintain this way of life in an admittedly costly, challenging environment. Most Alaskans favor tapping the wildlife refuge for oil.

The Qwich'in Indians are a significant voice of dissent. Their lives for millennia have been economically and spiritually entwined with that of the Porcupine River caribou herd, whose migrations to and from the refuge afford abundant hunting opportunity. Oil exploitation will destroy this natural procession, fears the native tribe, which rejected oil royalties to protect their primitive lands.

But ANWR, often called America's Serengeti as the home for scores of migratory bird species and Arctic animals, belongs to all

Americans. A decision to drill must serve the national interest.

Oil production is a messy business. Despite leaps of technological progress, roads and construction and drilling activity still leave a distinct mark on the fragile tundra. Spills and malfunctioning equipment are still too common on the North Slope fields. Vulnerable flora and fauna may adjust to the human incursions, but the ecosystem is permanently altered.

To risk despoiling this unique wilderness for what amounts to maybe six months of U.S. oil supply is unconscionable. Sensible conservation and realistic efficiencies would provide more energy independence than the most optimistic projections of oil in this pristine setting.

There's no national emergency. New reserves are being discovered in far less vulnerable settings. Oil is a global commodity; Arctic refuge oil will be no cheaper in the United States. It may ease the lives of Alaskans and oilmen, but wildlife refuge oil comes at too high an ecological price for the rest of us.

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