The Interior Department yesterday removed an island wildlife refuge from the protected wilderness system to allow construction of a major oil exploration staging base, including two 10,000-foot airstrips designed to serve C130 Hercules and jet transport planes.
Alaska's St. Matthew Island, which Congress voted in 1970 to keep "untrammeled by man," was described in an Interior Department memorandum of 1981 as "certainly as close to pure wilderness as can be found in the United States today."
Yesterday the department decided, under a controversial interpretation of its conservation authority, to trade "temporary use" of a 4,110-acre chunk of the island for permanent title to patches of new wilderness area amounting to 14,175 acres.
Within hours, seven environmental groups, calling the trade "one of the most damaging and worst of precedents ever set for wildlife management and conservation in this country," filed suit to stop it in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
William Horn, deputy undersecretary of the Interior, said yesterday that the land swap "constitutes a net benefit to the refuge system," since temporary leasing of St. Matthew has bought the department permanent title to three times its acreage in valuable wilderness land.
Interior officials also stressed that St. Matthew is one of a chain of 2,500 islands, and that only part of the island is to be developed, representing 0.1 percent of Alaska's wilderness acreage.
"It's a tiny, tiny bit of land we're talking about here," said Interior spokesman Douglas Baldwin.
But environmentalists countered that the island is more valuable wilderness than the lands being acquired, and that it is certain to be ruined as a nesting habitat by oil spills and the roar of jets. They also argued, in a reversal of roles with the Interior Department, that the 14,000 acres being acquired are sufficiently protected as wilderness already.
Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO), the nation's seventh largest oil company, has had its eye on rugged, tundra-topped St. Matthew Island since 1981, mostly because its location 250 miles west of the Alaska mainland puts it relatively close to prospective oil rig sites in the Bering Sea.
The island is home to up to 5 million protected waterfowl and was named in a 1970 congressional blanket ban on development. When ARCO asked Interior for permission to build an air base there in March, 1981, the answer was a flat no.
But soon afterward, the U.S. Geological Survey advised ARCO to pursue its request "through appropriate channels." ARCO then advised a consortium of Alaska Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos that a profitable deal could be cut if they could get rights to St. Matthew Island. The Alaska natives in turn advised Interior that they would like to arrange a swap.
That swap was consummated yesterday, when Horn signed an agreement with three Alaska native corporations, known collectively as the CIRI Group.
George Kriste, executive vice president of Cook Inlet Region Inc., largest of the native corporations, denied yesterday that his consortium acted as "a pawn or a dupe" of ARCO.
"Without any provocation from them," he said, "we sat down and figured that there was a business opportunity. We have no relationship with ARCO on this. We have no agreement."
When it comes time to sign with an oil company, in a sort of multimillion-dollar subletting, Kriste said, "There's a strong likelihood it possibly won't be ARCO."
Since talk first turned to development of St. Matthew, the Interior Department has seen a steady stream of worried correspondence, from within and without, about the likely impact on wildlife of the blasting required for construction, the noise from several jet flights a day and the potential spillage of oil.
In a March 24 letter, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game also doubted that the island could be restored to its original condition, as promised, after 10 to 30 years of use as a staging base.
"Complete restoration of the site, including destruction of air strips, buildings and other permanent facilities, is neither possible nor likely to be required because of the cost and the potential for other activities; therefore the wilderness character of St. Matthew Island will be lost," the letter said.
Interior Department officials argued yesterday that construction procedures, air paths and other potentially destructive development plans will be strictly regulated and that "you have to engage in a gloom and doom scenario" to predict more than minor dislocation of the island habitat.
Jim Leape, an attorney for the National Audubon Society, which led seven environmental groups in a lawsuit against Horn and Interior Secretary James G. Watt, replied that human safety factors properly will overtake environmental concerns once development begins, and that the foggy, gusty climate of the island will force developers to stray from their environmental guidelines.
"They've given away something of great value," Leape said.