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Archive for Monday, December 22, 2003

For Alaskans, nature, development coexist

December 22, 2003

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— Leigh Ann Bauer, who has lived in Alaska for 12 years, calls herself a "big-time animal lover." She also considers herself "pretty pro-oil development."

To many people in Alaska, those two things are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, sometimes it seems as if people outside Alaska see a bigger conflict between the environment and oil and gas drilling than those living here do -- a phenomenon made clear during the recent debates over exploiting new sources of energy in Alaska as existing stores become tapped out.

Alaska's economy is heavily dependent on oil, while its vast wilderness is a lure for outdoors enthusiasts. As far as many people are concerned, those two interests exist in remarkable harmony, with about 60 million hectares (150 million acres) of national parks, refuges and forests where development is either restricted or prohibited altogether.

Since 1986, the Alaska Oil and Gas Assn., an industry group, has regularly tracked public opinion on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration. Pollster Dave Dittman said 500 or more Alaskans are surveyed each year.

Over the years, public support has hovered around 70 percent, while the opposition average is 23 percent. Support dipped sharply only after the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. That year, 54 percent supported development of the refuge, while 40 percent opposed it.

In a recent survey, 81 percent said they believed oil and gas development had been environmentally safe. Fifteen percent disagreed.

"There may be a perceived paradox between development and the beautiful wilderness, but it's largely held outside Alaska," Dittman said. "Most Alaskans believe the oil industry and the environment have gotten along just fine."

Independent polls on the issue are hard to find. But one gauge of public opinion might be found at the ballot box -- Alaskans tend to elect pro-development candidates, including Democrat Tony Knowles, Alaska's only two-term governor in two decades. The former governor is running for the Senate and plans to push oil and gas development.

"He has always said development and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. Because we have the development, we can take the steps to protect the environment," Knowles spokesman Bob King said. "I don't see a contradiction."

The history of Alaska since the arrival of the Europeans in the 18th century is all about making money off of natural resources. The Russians came for fur, followed by people looking for gold, fish, timber, oil and gas.

"Most Alaskans are realistic about the fact that Alaska is a natural resource state. That's what pays the bills," said Terrence Cole, a history professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. "If you take that away, I don't know what's left. The whole idea of statehood was to develop the heck out of it."

Alaska's most recent big economic boom started in the late 1960s and early '70s when oil was discovered on the North Slope; the population more than doubled between 1963 and 1984.

Because of its oil riches, Alaska abolished its state income tax in 1979, soon after crude began flowing through the Alaska pipeline.

Also, practically every man, woman and child in the state gets a dividend check from the state's oil-royalty fund every year just for living here. This year's check was for $1,107.56. The state distributed more than $663 million in all to nearly 599,000 Alaskans.

As for the effects on wildlife, oil drilling at Prudhoe Bay has not hurt the Central Arctic caribou herd, supporters point out. In fact, the herd has increased almost six times in size -- from 5,000 animals in 1974 to nearly 32,000 in the latest count by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Caribou are commonly seen grazing near oil rigs and pipelines.

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