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    Oil Drilling Threatens Western Arctic Reserve

    The recent rise in gasoline prices is being used as a pretext to sacrifice one of America's greatest natural treasures - the Western Arctic Reserve of Alaska - to massive oil development.

    The Western Arctic Reserve may be less well-known than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - which lies directly to the east - but its wildlife populations are every bit as unique, spectacular and endangered.

    In particular, the Western Arctic Reserve's Teshekpuk Lake region - one of the most important tundra-wetland ecosystems left on our planet - is endangered. This vast network of coastal lagoons, deep water lakes, sedge grass meadows and braided streams provides the critical calving grounds for the 45,000-member Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

    Thirty percent of all Pacific black brant also take refuge in these safe and remote wetlands, remaining flightless while they replace their old feathers. Steller's eiders, northern pintails, tundra swans and rare yellow-billed loons are just a few of the other amazing species that flock to Teshekpuk Lake to nest, free from disturbance. Come Fall, some of these birds will migrate as far south as Antarctica.

    Polar bears roam the coastal areas of Teshekpuk Lake from summer to early winter. And people are counting on the lake for survival as well. The Inupiat Eskimos have subsisted here in balance with nature for at least 8,000 years by following the herds of caribou.

    Incredibly, the Western Arctic has never been granted full federal protection. That's because it was set aside as the "National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska" nearly a century ago. But Congress also stipulated that this oil field be tapped only in time of dire national need.

    Our government kept oil rigs out of the Western Arctic Reserve even during the darkest days of World War II and the oil embargo of the 1970s. As a result, most of the reserve has remained pristine - its primeval beauty unmarred by roads, oil rigs or other signs of human interference.

    Interior secretaries since the 1970s have recognized the need for special protection in the Teshekpuk Lake area. But if the Bush administration gets its way, Teshekpuk Lake will soon be stripped of most of those protections and sold to the highest bidder.

    And for what? Drilling in the Western Arctic would have no effect on gas prices at the pump. Its oil would take years to get to market and would never equal more than one or two percent of America's oil supply - a tiny drop in the bucket of our nation's oil consumption.

    Only one group would benefit from destroying the Western Arctic: the oil giants. Meanwhile, they would turn one of the planet's most fragile homes for Arctic wildlife into an industrial zone of pipelines, producing wells and contaminated waste sites.

    The Western Arctic Reserve is supposed to be an energy savings account of last resort. This fight represents one of our very last chances to preserve untrammeled wilderness as we first found it.

    BioGems: Saving Endangered Wild Places is a project of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Visit

    Submitted to RQ by Joe Donnelly.

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