The battle over whether oil companies should be allowed to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is nothing new -- but the fight over nearby public land called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is.
The NPRA is huge -- about the size of Indiana. Originally, it was set aside for the military, then in the 1970s it was reserved for domestic oil production.
Today, there are a few native villages in the NPRA, and about 30 wells have been drilled there -- but it is mostly undisturbed.
The federal government is working on a plan to guide future drilling there, but environmental groups want some of the reserve set aside as wilderness.
"The Bureau of Land Management recognizes already that there are some special areas in the reserve," says Lois Epstein, arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.
"This is truly wild country," says John Schoen, senior scientist for Audubon Alaska. "You see grizzly bears walking down a valley. You run into wolves."
During certain times of year, huge bands of caribou move across the reserve.
"It must be like what Lewis and Clark saw with the bison when they came across the country," Schoen says.
The caribou are important for Alaska natives, like Delbert Rexford, who lives in Barrow, Alaska, and serves on the council of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope. Rexford says any development in the petroleum reserve has to consider caribou migration.
"We don't want that interrupted," Rexford says. "They've been migrating and using a certain migration route since time immemorial."
Rexford says it's also important to protect sensitive areas where geese molt. The birds shed their feathers in the summer and are vulnerable because they can't fly.
But those molting areas are near some of the richest oil deposits in the NPRA.
"Mother Nature has been very cruel to the oil and gas industry in Alaska in terms of where the resource is," says Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
Crockett says production is declining on state land, and now companies must turn to federal land on the North Slope. She dismisses any talk of creating wilderness in the petroleum reserve.
"Frankly, the state of Alaska doesn't need any more wilderness areas," she says. "Something on the order of two-thirds of the state is already set aside in wilderness preserves, wildlife refuges [and] wilderness areas."
The U.S. Geological Survey released an assessment in October that reduces by more than 90 percent the amount of oil that's likely to be recovered in the NPRA. But even with the reduced estimate, there's still about 900 million barrels of oil in the reserve. That's twice what the U.S. gets from the Gulf of Mexico in a year.
The Bureau of Land Management is expected to issue a plan for the NPRA in 2012, and it will have to balance competing objectives laid out by Congress for the reserve.
"There is a hierarchy, and that's why this plan is dealing with oil and gas leasing," says Bob Schneider, district manager of the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks. "It's not a protection plan, per se, but we are looking at how we can protect sensitive resources at the same time."
Meanwhile, the Interior Department recently announced a new policy requiring the Bureau of Land Management to create an inventory of land with wilderness characteristics and then protect them. You could argue that nearly all of the NPRA would qualify as wilderness. The Bureau of Land Management is currently reviewing the policy to determine how it will affect the planning process for the reserve.
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