Clinton must leave environmental legacy

By AISLING KERINS

In the final days of his administration, President Clinton has the opportunity to leave behind a preservation legacy comparable to that of Theodore Roosevelt by acting on two key opportunities. First, President Clinton should name the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a national monument. Second, he should enact a final roadless policy that provides immediate and lasting protection for all roadless areas in our national forests, including the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

By protecting these wilderness areas, President Clinton will leave a true environmental legacy that prioritizes wilderness over development, and favors caribou, grizzly bears and hikers instead of oil wells, roads and bulldozers.

There is simply no place like the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge in the United States. There are no roads, no trails and no development of any kind on the coastal plain. It is truly pristine wilderness, which makes the nature of the coastal plain an ideal habitat for wildlife. Caribou, musk oxen, wolves, all three species of bears and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds rely on the habitat the refuge provides. There is so much wildlife in the Arctic Refuge that it is often referred to as "America’s Serengeti." The oil industry — led by BP and Exxon Mobil — and their allies in Congress want to drill for oil and gas in the coastal plain. Though they already have access to 95 percent of Alaska’s North Slope, the oil industry also wants to drill in the Arctic Refuge.

Drilling in the Arctic would pollute and industrialize this unique place, yet would do virtually nothing to solve our energy problems. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that at current rates of consumption, there is less than six months worth of oil and gas in the refuge. It defies common sense to ruin the refuge for such a short-term supply of oil.

It also does not make sense to log, mine, drill or build roads in our remaining wilderness areas. However, timber and mining companies continue to develop our national forests for economic gain. Nearly 100 million acres, more than half of our national forests, have been developed to the point that they no longer qualify as wilderness. Less than 18 percent of our national forests are protected from road building, logging or other destructive activities. The current plan does not address the nearly 1.8 million acres of roadless Forest Services areas that have not officially been recognized as roadless in our state.

National forests are home to one-quarter of America’s endangered species, including grizzly bears, wolves and salmon. They also provide places to hike, fish and camp for millions of Americans. In 1996 alone, Americans made 341 million recreational visits to national forests. Streams running through national forests provide clean drinking water to nearly 1,000 communities nationwide.

It is clear that the American public wants to protect our remaining wilderness areas. Poll after poll shows that Americans strongly oppose oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge and support protecting roadless areas. This summer a record 1.5 million Americans wrote to the Forest Service in support of a strong roadless policy.

President Clinton has just days left to seize this unique opportunity to save our wild heritage. He should act now to declare the Arctic Refuge a National Monument. He should also enact a roadless policy that permanently protects 60 million acres of roadless areas in our national forests, including the Tongass. Future generations will thank President Clinton for leaving an historic environmental legacy.

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