Government Abandons Swap of Land in Alaskan Refuge
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Interior Department in the face of Capitol Hill opposition is halting work on its secretly negotiated plan to trade away oil rights in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
″We have put the entire process on hold,″ William Horn, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, said Thursday, four days after the legality of the process was challenged by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
Later Thursday, Miller and Reps. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., and Don Young, R- Alaska, key players in the debate over oil drilling in the refuge, introduced legislation to prevent the plan from being carried out without approval of Congress.
Miller and Studds chair House subcommittees considering the Reagan administration’s request to repeal the law barring petroleum development in the potentially oil-rich refuge. Young is one of the foremost advocates of opening the refuge to oil rigs.
Horn reiterated Thursday that even though Interior lawyers believe the department has authority to trade away the oil rights to native groups without further action by Congress, it will not do so unilaterally.
He said officials will do no more work on the oil rights trade until after consulting with congressional chairmen with authority over the refuge issue. He said the plan would be dropped ″if we find unanimous opposition″ among the leaders.
Horn said three of eight steps in the land-exchange process had been completed, the latest being the selection by six Alaska native corporations of 166,000 acres in the refuge.
In return for oil rights on the 166,000 acres, the corporations would give the federal government surface title, but not mineral rights, to 891,000 acres they own in seven other wildlife refuges in Alaska.
Each of the native corporations has side deals with one or more major oil companies eager to drill in the refuge, which is near the productive Prudhoe Bay fields in northern Alaska.
Horn, who helped negotiate the proposed exchange in 18 months of secret talks, said the deal would give the natives $538.7 million worth of oil rights in the refuge and give the government land elsewhere worth the same amount.
″We’re not engaged in any form of giveaway,″ said Horn, adding that the proposed trade offers ″a unique opportunity to make a major addition to the national wildlife refuge system.″
He said any exchange would require native corporations to reclaim Arctic refuge land once oil activities ended there.
On Monday, Miller, chairman of the Interior water and power resources subcommittee, said he would seek a review by the General Accounting Office, the investigative wing of Congress, into the legality of the proposed exchange.