Few pilgrims have journeyed to the bottom of the world. But people like the idea that the place exists. Antarctica is an immense, frozen, lonely world unto itself, and Congress seems to want to keep it that way.
In many ways, protecting Antarctica is the perfect environmental issue. After all, there are no jobs to be lost at the South Pole. No factories will close if Antarctica is declared a world park. It is the rarest of issues, one in which a Republican lawmaker and a Greenpeace activist can agree.
In recent weeks, two resolutions calling for the preservation of Antarctica as "a global ecological commons" passed the House and Senate. Moreover, legislation to protect the frozen continent and, most important, to ban commercial mining and drilling also passed in both houses of Congress. Compromise language is being worked out, and it is possible a bill may make its way to the White House this session.
All this is very admirable, say State Department officials, but naive.
"A ban feels good, but it offers no long-term protection," said Tucker Scully, director of the office of ocean affairs at the State Department and the lead U.S. negotiator for things Antarctic. "Creating a world park is to stick one's head in the sand."
Scully stresses the administration does not want to see Antarctica become a big strip mine. But he insists a permanent ban against mining would create a legal vacuum in which a rogue country could decide unilaterally to dig for gold or drill for oil.
While it is still unknown what mineral resources exist in Antarctica, or whether it would ever be worth braving the cold and dark to get them out, Scully and the State Department maintain that a mineral convention that allows mining but places heavy restrictions on the activity is better than a complete and permanent ban, which they say would create chaos.
"Tucker Scully's a nice guy and he has a lot of time invested in the minerals convention, but he's simply wrong," said Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who introduced the resolution to protect Antarctica and ban mining. The minerals convention, Gore said, "is deader than a doornail."
"The United States should be leading the way and trying to protect the island instead of trying to protect the mineral convention," said Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah), who introduced a similar resolution in the House.
Antarctica is like no place on Earth, either ecologically or politically. No country owns Antarctica or any piece of it. Instead, a group of nations with a strategic and scientific interest in Antarctica negotiated a treaty in 1959 that permitted "peaceful activities" on the continent, but prohibited nuclear testing or military activities.
For the most part, Antarctica today remains a preserve for scientists, who come each year to peer at the ozone hole, catch krill and drill holes in the ice to examine past climate. Tourism, while growing, brings a few thousand people to the island for a quick look. Overall, it is the most pristine spot on Earth.
Yet Antarctica is a tricky place. It is administered by treaty and convention. Countries with different agendas, such as Britain and Argentina, sit at the same table. A number of nations have claimed slices of the Antarctic pie and some of these slices overlap. The United States does not recognize territorial claims, but it has kept its options open and reserves the right to make its own claim.
Recently, relationships between the treaty partners have become strained over the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities, which the State Department, and Scully in particular, worked hard on. In essence, the mineral convention addresses the possibility that some country may one day want to mine in Antarctica, and it establishes a protocol for allowing mining only if strict environmental protections are guaranteed. Moreover, it would require the agreement of all parties.
However, to many people even the remote possibility of mining in Antarctica is repugnant. Australia and France already have bailed out of the mineral convention and refuse to ratify the agreement. Other countries appear ready to break rank. Marine explorer Jacques Cousteau is on the stump for a permanent ban against mining. Greenpeace is also banging the drums.
"The minerals convention they negotiated has major flaws," said Susan Sabella of Greenpeace. Sabella said the convention would allow prospecting, which she believes could set off a gold rush to exploit the continent. Instead, the environmental group would like to see a permanent ban on mining and more stringent environmental regulations for scientists and tourists who visit Antarctica.
It is the word "permanent" that State Department officials object to most. U.S. negotiators and their counterparts are scheduled to meet in Chile next month to discuss protection of the Antarctic. Mining is sure to come up. Scully said U.S. negotiators probably would accept "an indefinite ban" on mining that is within the mineral convention.
Whether the 24 other countries involved will agree is unknown. But word games over "permanent" and "indefinite" might settle the issue, allowing environmentalists, members of Congress and the administration all to claim victory.