Snowmobile ban Arctic drilling a go for Bush
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APRIL 24, 2001

The Bush administration on Monday said it would no longer delay implementation of a ban on snowmobiles in national parks and would continue its push to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to oil drilling.

On both issues, however, the administration faces considerable protest. Snowmobile groups have sued the Department of Interior over the ban, which is also opposed by Republicans and some Western Governors. Meanwhile, the Gwich'in Nation, joined by a number of Democrat lawmakers and environmentalists, don't want to see oil or gas development in ANWR.

The contention highlights the criticism the administration has received over its environmental stance. While receiving overall high approval marks, less than half of Americans surveyed in a Washington Post / ABC News poll believe Bush is doing a good job on the environment.

For Secretary Gale Norton, the snowmobile ban is just one of the many Clinton-era decisions the Interior has held back for review. Norton and her staff have been re-evaluating hard rock mining regulations, the federal recognition of two tribes, a legal opinion favoring Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico, and new tribal trust land standards, which Norton last week delayed by at least four months.

While Interior officials won't concede the delays necessarily mean Norton will outright rescind any particular decision, Norton in recent weeks has hinted of potential changes to the snowmobile one even though her department will now let it go into effect. The rule calls for a ban on snowmobiles in most national parks and a phase-out in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park by the winter of 2003-2004.

The Interior cites air pollution and noise as the primary factors for the ban. In a speech last month to the National Parks Conservative Association (NPCA), Norton acknowledged off-road vehicles contribute to noise but said there are ways to mitigate their overall effects.

On CNN's "Late Edition," Norton on Sunday added that the administration wants to give the snowmobile industry a chance to prove it can make safer vehicles. But NPCA President Thomas Kiernan yesterday said he feared the administration would end up caving in to the snowmobile industry.

On the same program, Norton said the administration is still making a big push to drill in ANWR, despite Congressional opposition. Just hours earlier, Environmental Protection Agency Chief Christie Whitman played down drilling on another program.

Yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer acknowledged there was some "confusion" over the apparently conflicting remarks. But he denied that Whitman was "out of the loop."

"The President's position on opening up a small portion of ANWR for oil development is unchanged," said Fleischer. "And toward that end, an energy proposal that will be shortly submitted from the Vice President's task force will include a provision calling for opening up a small portion of ANWR for energy development."

Republican Senators, led by Frank Murkowski (Alaska), are pushing for development and are supported by Inupiat Eskimos, who stand to gain economically. Drilling could bring jobs to the Inupiat village of Kaktovik and Arctic Slope Regional, an Inupiat-owned corporation, has mineral rights to land which could be developed.

Their Gwich'in neighbors in Alaska and Canada don't want drilling for fear it could harm the Porcupine caribou herd. "We're all united against development of the birthplace of the herd because all of our people rely on the herd," said Faith Gemmill, coordinator for the Gwich'in Nation Steering Committee.

"The American people want to see the refuge protected regardless of what the President thinks about the issue," Gemmill added.

Interior spokesperson Stephanie Hanna said Norton is willing to consider the views of Alaska Natives opposed to drilling. But while discounting the idea that Norton has already made up her mind, Hanna said Norton wants to convince Alaska Natives like the Gwich'in that development can occur in an environmentally responsible way.

Talks are ongoing between snowmobile groups and the Department of Justice. The Interior or Justice won't comment on the nature of the discussions.

Relevant Links:
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
Oil Issues in ANWR, US Fish and Wildlife -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site -

Related Stories:
Administration has mixed drilling messages (4/23)
Will Norton change snowmobile ban? (4/23)
Norton delays land-into-trust regulations (4/16)
Gwich'in Nation: We Come from the Caribou (4/4)