ANCHORAGE - A controversial land swap proposal could open portions of an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, dividing Alaska natives and stoking opposition from environmentalists seeking to protect the bears, moose and birds that live there.
Supporters of the plan to exchange land in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which lies just south of the more-famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, say they would like the plan to be approved by the administration of President George W. Bush before the election in November.
"The window is the election," Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, a staunch backer of the plan, said at an Anchorage news conference. "We'd like to have an executive order out of the administration before they leave office."
The proposed land trade would give 110,000 acres of hydrocarbon-prone uplands within the refuge, plus mineral rights to another 97,000 acres, to Fairbanks-based Doyon Ltd. In exchange, the refuge would gain 150,000 acres of bird-friendly wetlands now owned by Doyon, plus 56,500 acres on which Doyon has pending land claims.
Doyon, owned by Athabascan Indians of interior Alaska, has long envisioned such a trade to give economic benefits to its shareholders while preserving traditional culture and the environment on which it depends.
"You can have both the subsistence lifestyle and the protection of that lifestyle, and you can have oil and gas exploration," said Norm Phillips, Doyon's resource manager.
But many people living closest to the potential development -- many of them Doyon shareholders -- oppose the plan because of the likelihood of oil pollution and the possibility of social upheaval such as a flow of drugs, alcohol and poachers over new roads.
"Usually, the indigenous people are at the losing end of any sort of oil development," said Dacho Alexander, first chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribe in Fort Yukon, a village of 600 near the proposed exchange parcels.
Alexander said the dispute illustrates the perennial clash between corporate goals and noneconomic Native values.
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The Yukon Flats basin holds an estimated 173 million barrels of oil -- accounting for less than nine days of U.S. consumption at current rates -- along with 5.5 trillion cubic feet of gas and 127 million barrels of natural-gas liquids, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
It also holds unique ecological values.
Straddling the Arctic Circle, cradled by two mountain ranges and bisected by the Yukon River, the refuge encompasses boreal forests that support moose, grizzly and black bears and many other mammals.
Its network of lakes, streams, ponds and sloughs attract Alaska's highest concentrations of breeding ducks. It has some of Alaska's coldest winter days and, thanks to around-the-clock sunlight, scorching summer temperatures as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest for this latitude in North America.
Fran Mauer, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and prominent critic of the land exchange, says the trade plan violates the refuge's conservation mission.
"I just don't see that it's in the public's interest to do it," he said.
But Doyon officials say that no matter what land the corporation ends up owning, oil and gas drilling is inevitable in the Yukon Flats.
"Even if the land trade doesn't happen, Doyon is still going to move forward with exploration out there," Phillips said.
Reporting by Yereth Rosen; editing by Jim Marshall
© 2008 Reuters