Habitat designation won't help polar bears, but will kill Alaska's jobs

Polar bears rest on the Beaufort Sea ice in northern Alaska, part of the area that would be designated as critical habitat.
Polar bears rest on the Beaufort Sea ice in northern Alaska, part of the area that would be designated as critical habitat. (Steve Amstrup/associated Press)
By Sean Parnell
Friday, August 6, 2010

Imagine a federal agency listing a species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act even though that species is stable and shows no evidence of decline.

Now imagine that agency setting aside an area larger than the state of California as "designated critical habitat" for that species, and subjecting all activity in that region to federal review, skyrocketing costs, endless delays and certain litigation, despite the agency itself admitting that the critical-habitat designation will do nothing to benefit the species.

Unfortunately, this isn't a hypothetical situation. This is exactly what is occurring in Alaska as the federal government strives to appease environmental advocacy groups.

At a time when our nation must look to its own energy resources, rather than remain so heavily reliant on foreign oil, the Interior Department's proposal to designate nearly half of Alaska's oil-producing area as critical habitat for the polar bear is a chilling prospect.

But it's not chilling in a way that would help the polar bear. The Obama administration's proposal to set aside the entire northern sector of Alaska would not have any impact on the predicted loss of Arctic sea ice, the justification Interior gave for listing the polar bear as threatened despite its currently stable population.

The only chilling effect would be to Alaska's economy and to the nation's efforts to be energy-independent, an issue critical to our national security.

The area proposed for designation as critical habitat is remote, but these 187,166 square miles are also home to many Alaskans who would be severely affected by the designation.

Whether it's hunting for food, building a sea wall to protect a village from ocean erosion or constructing a septic system to replace unsanitary sewage lagoons, all manner of activity in an area designated as critical habitat gets caught in the regulatory machine of the federal bureaucracy.

Such a designation would also hobble the ability of Alaska Native Corporations to develop or use lands they were given through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The bottom line is that once a species is listed as threatened, any and every action that could potentially affect that species or its habitat could be shut down or delayed.

While Alaska is working to improve the well-being of people in its rural areas, designating these areas as critical habitat signals a very serious turn for the worse for villages struggling to survive and cope with a rapidly changing world.

The Interior Department has said that the costs to our state for consultations associated with the designation will be less than $60,000 annually, or $700,000 over the course of 15 years. However, these federal estimates severely understate the economic effects of the delays in oil and gas development that the designation would create. The costs associated with just one capital project, such as sea wall construction, could far exceed these projections. The state of Alaska and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a native corporation, commissioned an economic impact study by a third party; it found economic effects in the hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of dollars.

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