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Alaskans love nature, but also oil

Alaska has been at the center of the national oil drilling debate for years, but polls find a strong majority of residents see oil wells as positive, especially since they benefit financially.
A lone caribou walks across the Dalton Highway near the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline south of Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope.Al Grillo / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Leigh Ann Bauer, who has lived in Alaska for 12 years, calls herself a "big-time animal lover." She also considers herself "pretty pro-oil development."

To many people in Alaska, those two things are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, sometimes it seems as if people outside Alaska see a bigger conflict between the environment and oil and gas drilling than those living here do -- a phenomenon made clear during the recent debates over exploiting new sources of energy in Alaska as existing stores become tapped out.

Alaska's economy is heavily dependent on oil, while its vast wilderness is a lure for outdoors enthusiasts. As far as many people are concerned, those two interests exist in remarkable harmony, with about 150 million acres of national parks, refuges and forests where development is either restricted or prohibited altogether.

Majority favor drills
Since 1986, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, an industry group, has regularly tracked public opinion on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration. Pollster Dave Dittman said 500 or more Alaskans are surveyed each year.

Over the years, public support has hovered around 70 percent, while the opposition average is 23 percent. Support dipped sharply only after the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. That year, 54 percent supported development of the refuge, while 40 percent opposed it.

In a recent survey, 81 percent said they believed oil and gas development has been environmentally safe. Fifteen percent disagreed.

"There may be a perceived paradox between development and the beautiful wilderness, but it's largely held outside Alaska," Dittman said. "Most Alaskans believe the oil industry and the environment have gotten along just fine."

Independent polls on the issue are hard to find. But one gauge of public opinion might be found at the ballot box _ Alaskans tend to elect pro-development candidates, including Democrat Tony Knowles, Alaska's only two-term governor in two decades. The former governor is running for the Senate and plans to push oil and gas development.

"He has always said development and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. Because we have the development, we can take the steps to protect the environment," Knowles spokesman Bob King said. "I don't see a contradiction."

The history of Alaska since the arrival of the Europeans in the 18th century is all about making money off of natural resources. The Russians came for fur, followed by people looking for gold, fish, timber, oil and gas.

"Most Alaskans are realistic about the fact that Alaska is a natural resource state. That's what pays the bills," said Terrence Cole, a history professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. "If you take that away, I don't know what's left. The whole idea of statehood was to develop the heck out of it."

'Responsible development'
Alaska's most recent big economic boom started in late 1960s and early '70s when oil was discovered on the North Slope; the population more than doubled between 1963 and 1984.

"I'm a big-time animal lover and I love the wildlife up here. It's just awesome, but there needs to be a balance," said Bauer, a criminal defense attorney in Anchorage. "Responsible development is the key. I think the oil companies are doing their job well."

Without oil, she said, the state would lose much of the revenue it needs to maintain the benefits to which Alaskans have grown accustomed.

** FILE **Oil storage tanks sit at the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska, in this undated file photo. The pipeline carries crude oil from Alaska's North Slope, 800 miles south across Alaska to the Valdez terminal where the oil is loaded onto tankers for transport. U.S. officials said Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2003, they have received information from a credible source about an al-Qaida threat against oil interests in Alaska, which they have not fully corroborated (AP Photo/Al Grillo Photography, Al Grillo, File)Al Grillo / AL GRILLO PHOTOGRAPHY

Because of its oil riches, Alaska abolished its state income tax in 1979, soon after crude began flowing through the Alaska pipeline.

Also, practically every man, woman and child in the state gets a dividend check from the state's oil-royalty fund every year just for living here. This year's check was for $1,107.56. The state distributed more than $663 million in all to nearly 599,000 Alaskans.

As for the effects on wildlife, oil drilling at Prudhoe Bay has not hurt the Central Arctic caribou herd, supporters point out. In fact, the herd has increased almost six times in size _ from 5,000 animals in 1974 to nearly 32,000 in the latest count by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Caribou are commonly seen grazing near oil rigs and pipelines.

The sheer size of Alaska means that drilling on the Arctic Circle is not exactly next door to the places most Alaskans live. For someone in Anchorage to get upset about drilling in ANWR would be, geographically speaking, like someone in Memphis, Tenn., worrying about the environment in Detroit, more than 600 miles away.

Where to drill?
Not everybody in Alaska feels that way.

Some environmentalists in Alaska, along with their Lower 48 counterparts, are vocal in their opposition to development of the arctic refuge and, more recently, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The refuge proposal was dropped recently from an energy bill in Congress.

"We're not opposed to oil development," said Stan Senner, executive director of the National Audubon Society's Alaska office. "The problem we've got with oil industry is that it's not willing to acknowledge that some places are so sensitive it should stay out of them."

Nori Pieknik of Anchorage, a 20-year Alaska resident, said the oil industry has proven itself a poor caretaker, most notably in the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound.

"After the Exxon Valdez disaster, I've been a little leery about any exploration and drilling and transfer of oil," Pieknik said. "There are other places to find oil other than Alaska."