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

By Sean Parnell
Friday, August 6, 2010; A17

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.

Perhaps most perplexing, the Interior Department has acknowledged that this critical-habitat designation will not result in significant added conservation benefits for polar bears. In addition, much of the area proposed as critical habitat is not land at all, but sea ice. This ice by nature shifts and melts, and it is likely that much of the area designated as critical habitat will soon be open water, miles away from the nearest polar bear, but still squarely on top of some of America's richest shallow-water oil and gas deposits.

The federal government will have protected open waters for bears that have roamed to new areas. Creating a boundary on critical habitat for polar bears is truly trying to hit a moving target.

Americans need to understand how we arrived at the point where the Interior Department can potentially shut down access to an entire state's resources, while admitting that the move will not protect the species in question.

Years ago, environmental advocacy groups picked one species -- the polar bear -- to be the poster child for global warming, and these groups have waged a relentless publicity campaign ever since. Alaskans recognize the lock-up effort for what it is: a job-killer and damper on our nation's energy security.

The federal government's efforts to lock up one state's resources should concern all Americans. Since 1970, restrictions on harvest have allowed Alaska's polar bear population to rebuild and remain healthy. The increase happened during the most intensive period of oil and gas development in Alaska's history, and as billions of barrels of oil were shipped to other states to fuel the nation's economy.

Alaska worked hard to rebuild the polar bear population, and for the past several years the polar bear numbers here have remained stable, with no statistically significant declines or increases.

Politics should give way to science, and our federal government should be working with states to create private-sector jobs, not destroying an opportunity for economic growth.

The writer, a Republican, is governor of Alaska.

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