Bush Moves on Alaska as Backs Are Turned
Whether it's outsourcing a war in Iraq, or greasing the skids for industry buddies in Alaska, the Bush administration has made the backdoor fix its fundamental operating maxim.
The nation's attention has lately been diverted to stocks' roller-coaster ride, foreclosures and falling house prices, and self-destructive acts by 20-something showbiz folk.
What better time to sneak through something called the Chukchi Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193, which happens to cover essential habitat for half the U.S. polar bear population?
What more opportune occasion to open 2.4 million acres of Alaska's Tongass National Forest to logging and road building, on which Uncle Sam will be lucky to get back 5 cents on the dollar?
The Chukchi Sea lease is a particular example of how timing figures in a fix.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced a "delay" in its decision on listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.
In the meantime, the Minerals Management Service is getting set, on Feb. 6, to throw open 30 million acres of the bears' habitat to oil and gas development.
With the skill of a World War II convoy escort, the administration has laid down a smoke screen around its actions.
"We wouldn't be proceeding with this sale if we weren't comfortable that we had enough knowledge, enough data to say that we can adequately see that the polar bear is protected: I'm confident we have done all we needed to do," MMS boss Randall Luthi told a House subcommittee earlier this month.
In a 2007 memo, former MMS polar bear biologist James Wilder asked his bosses to hold off the lease until measures were taken to protect the bears.
"I do not see how the MMS can pass the 'red face' test ... when polar bear issues which have been raised have been repeatedly and completely ignored by both Shell and MMS," he wrote.
"Requests for critical information" on bear impacts were "repeatedly denied," he wrote, and big polar bear populations "are likely to be greased if there is an oil spill," Wilder added.
Wilder wrote that there was "extreme pressure" on scientists to speed up environmental reviews of plans to open the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi seas to oil and gas development.
A bipartisan House group, including Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., is raising a cry in advance of February's fix.
"We believe that any further commitments to fossil fuel development in polar bear habitat should be put on hold until the Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a final listing determination for the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act," Inslee and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., wrote in a recent letter to the service. Fifty-one House colleagues co-signed the letter.
Last week, many of the same lawmakers told Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne they are "deeply troubled" by delay in protecting the polar bear. They urged him to "immediately postpone" Lease Sale 193.
The Inslee-Shays letter made clear the bears' peril.
Global warming is shrinking the Arctic icepack, the essential hunting terrain for polar bears.
"The U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that polar bears will almost certainly disappear from Alaska by the middle of this century, and that we will have lost fully two-thirds of the world's polar bears by this time," Inslee and Shays wrote.
The bears are likely to survive only on islands of Canada's far north and in northwest Greenland.
As we struggle to limit global warming, why turn a huge chunk of polar bear habitat over to the fossil-fuel economy?
Given the bears' "perilous status," Inslee and Shays wrote, doesn't it make sense to "maximize the protection" of the great animals' remaining habitat?
Not to the administration.
The National Audubon Society is planning a federal court challenge to Lease Sale 193.
In turn, the state of Alaska opposes Endangered Species Act listing of polar bears. The state has a long history of picking petrodollars ahead of protecting its natural heritage.
A huge area of the Arctic -- the National Petroleum Reserve, west of Prudhoe Bay -- has already been thrown open to oil and gas leasing.
Can't the Bushmen and oilmen ever get enough?
As if drilling the polar bear's domain isn't enough, the administration took out after Alaska's brown bear habitat Friday.
It released a management plan for the Tongass National Forest that will open to logging and road building about 2.4 million acres of currently wild and roadless federal land.
OK, the 17-million-acre Tongass already has a lot of designated wilderness. One is pressed to think of a major icefield that does not enjoy the highest measure of federal protection.
The problem is, wild creatures live in low-elevation forests and valleys and wetlands. About 18 months ago, I watched brown bears feeding in an estuary off Upper Tenakee Inlet of Chichagof Island, an area slated to get new roads and be clear-cut.
Does this make sense? A total of 3,700 miles of roads now crisscross the Tongass and adjoining native lands.
And the U.S. Treasury? In 2002, the U.S. Forest Service spent $36 million on its Tongass timber sales program, and received back just $1.2 million from timber companies.
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