ANCHORAGE, Alaska - January 11 - Ignoring vocal opposition from Alaska natives, scientists and sportsmen, the Bush administration today opened for oil leasing 100 percent of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area in Northwestern Alaska. The decision repeals the last remaining protections for critical waterfowl and big game habitat around Teshekpuk Lake, protections first established by Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt who is not usually noted for conservation achievements. The final plan threatens to strike a significant blow to wildlife populations and hunting opportunities in Alaska and across the nation.
"It is clear that this administration cares much more about doing favors for the oil industry than conserving wildlife for future generations," said Betsy Goll, Sierra Club's Alaska Regional Representative. "Even James Watt protected Teshekpuk Lake, yet the Bush administration can't deem one acre of this magnificent region worthy of protection."
The Teshekpuk Lake area is one of unparalled big game and waterfowl habitat. One in four of the world's population of Pacific black brant utilize the area. Approximately 37,000 black brant, 30 percent of the entire population, utilized the Teshekpuk Lake area for molting in 2001. Other waterfowl that rely on the area include lesser snow geese, white-fronted geese and long-tailed duck that find critical nesting and molting habitat in the Lake's environs. Spectacled and Steller's eiders, both listed as "threatened species" under the federal Endangered Species Act, use the area for nesting. Big game species found in the area include the 45,000-member Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd that provides a subsistence hunting base for the remote communities of Nuiqsut, Barrow, Atqasuk and Wainwright as well as sport hunting opportunities.
BLM's draft plan, released in June 2004, elicited more than 220,000 comments from across the nation with the vast majority opposed to oil drilling in the area. Other federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also raised concerns.
"This is a shortsighted decision that places efforts to conserve waterfowl for future generations at risk," said Bart Semcer, the Sierra Club's Fish and Wildlife Policy Specialist in Washington, DC. "If initiatives like the North American Waterfowl Management Plan are going to succeed, public lands like those around Teshekpuk Lake need to be conserved as vigorously as partnerships on private land."
Congress and three Secretaries of the Interior have recognized the ecological importance of the area around Teshekpuk Lake. Former Secretary of Interior James Watt closed an area of more than 200,000 acres north of Teshekpuk Lake to oil and gas leasing. In 1998, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt established an oil and gas leasing plan for the northeast Reserve, which protected much of the sensitive habitat around Teshekpuk Lake from leasing or oil and gas facilities.
In early 2004, the Bush administration announced its intent to alter the 1998 plan, and in June 2004 the BLM released a draft plan that proposed opening 96 percent of the entire Northeast Planning Area to oil leasing. In statements delivered in a gathering including extractive industry leaders in Anchorage last week, BLM Alaska Director Henri Bisson acknowledged BLM's plan to dismantle long-standing rules that had set core wildlife habitats in the area north of Teshekpuk Lake off limits to drilling since the Reagan administration.
"Despite the administration's spin, 100 percent of the Teshekpuk Lake area will ultimately be open to oil leasing, and not a single acre will be permanently dedicated to conservation. The bottom line is that one of North America's best remaining waterfowl habitats will be fragmented by roads, pipelines, air strips, gravel mines and industrial sprawl," said Goll.