POLITICS

Arctic refuge's 'ANWR' tag rankles conservationists

First comes the abbreviation. Then comes the drilling.

That's the fear of environmental groups fighting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas drilling and the reason they are quietly waging a battle over how the 19-million-acre area is branded to the public.

As the House moves closer to passing a bill that would open a portion of the refuge's coastal plain to drilling, environmentalists and their Democratic allies warn the term "ANWR" fails to convey a place rich in wildlife, cultural values and wilderness.

"ANWR" -- pronounced ANN-warr -- connotes a landscape of mineral wealth ripe for development, some refuge advocates argue.

Groups also oppose calling the refuge's 1.6-million-acre coastal plain the "1002 area," a nickname that came from Section 10, Paragraph 2 of the 1980 bill that named the refuge and drew its modern boundaries.

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"It's the bane of my existence," said Emilie Surrusco, communications director for the Alaska Wilderness League, a Washington, D.C.-based group that is fighting plans to drill in the refuge and offshore in the Arctic Ocean.

Those who say "ANWR" on a conference call at the wilderness league are asked to pay a dollar in penance, she said.

An aide to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has sponsored a bill to designate the coastal plain as wilderness, corrects reporters who use the acronym over the phone. Conservationists, too, have excused themselves when accidentally using the term in front of like-minded peers.

Even lawmakers who oppose drilling in the refuge continue to sometimes call it by its acronym, said Cindy Shogan, executive director at the wilderness league.

"We've definitely failed in convincing members to not call it ANWR," she said. "ANWR is what the oil industry wants you to think of it. We're very conscientious about staying on message."

For his part, Markey did not use the term when he introduced his bill on the House floor earlier this year but has since had the occasional slip, Shogan said.

Doug Brinkley, a historian from Rice University, also accused the oil lobby Friday of using the acronym to win public support for drilling.

"Do you want to drill ANWR? Yes," he told the House Natural Resources Committee at a hearing titled "ANWR: Jobs, Energy and Deficit Reduction." "Do you want to molest [President] Eisenhower's great wildlife reserve? No."

But while major oil companies did lobby on ANWR in the 1990s, companies began pulling out of the debate at least 10 years ago when the issue started becoming politically caustic, said Adrian Herrera, who manages Arctic Power, an Anchorage-based lobbying firm with a Washington office funded primarily by the state of Alaska.

Industry campaign

Now, those on Capitol Hill who support Arctic drilling find it frustrating that the industry does not play a larger role, Herrera said.

Arctic Power has waged a campaign of its own to draw a distinction between the coastal plain and the scenic Brooks Range that overlooks the low-lying tundra.

On its website -- which, incidentally, goes by www.anwr.org -- the group shows side-by-side pictures of the coastal plain and the Brooks mountains.

Winters on the coastal plain last for nine months, and the area is dark continuously for nearly two months, the website argues. Wind chills can reach minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and native villages, roads, houses, schools and military installations make the area far from pristine.

"Why show people a picture of beautiful and pristine mountains with a title underneath it, 'Let's protect our wilderness?'" Herrera said. Nearly half of the refuge, including much of the mountains, is already protected as wilderness or congressionally spared from drilling, he said.

"It's a disingenuous assumption that is being implied by a photograph of the coastal plain with the beautiful mountains in the background, which people assume will be absolutely destroyed if you have oil and gas drilling," he said.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), an outspoken and often combative proponent of ANWR drilling, at Friday's hearing called the coastal plain the most barren part of the refuge.

"How many people visited the Arctic wildlife range last year? Not many. We have sort of an elitist group that is going up there," he said. "The Arctic plain is really nothing. You say it is the heart; it is not the heart."

But while he is partly right -- the Fish and Wildlife Service this summer said about 250 people recreate on the coastal plain each year -- federal scientists said the area is "highly suitable" for wilderness and preliminarily recommended Congress protect it by law (Greenwire, Aug. 15).

In written testimony to the House committee last week, the Interior Department said the coastal plain is part of a diverse spectrum of wildlife habitats that is "unparalleled" in North America and is not appropriate for development.

"The Arctic refuge itself is America's finest example of an intact, naturally functioning community of arctic and subarctic ecosystems," it said.

While 10 billion barrels of oil is believed to lie underneath the coastal plain, environmental groups warn development could disrupt a critical birthing ground for polar bears, bird species and the Porcupine caribou herd.

Reporter Paul Voosen contributed.

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