RECENT articles in The Christian Science Monitor severely underestimated the potential economic and national-security importance of a major oil discovery in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and greatly overestimated the potential impacts on wildlife in the region. Extensive wildlife studies and two decades of experience at nearby Prudhoe Bay, the United States' largest-ever oil field, demonstrate that we can find and develop oil resources in this small portion of the refuge and protect the wildlife. We do not have to choose one or the other. We can have both.
The 1.5 million acres of the refuge where leasing could occur (only 8 percent of the total acreage) is the most promising oil prospect in the US, and success there could mean hundreds of billions of dollars to the US economy as well as immeasurable benefits for our national security. Three to 9 billion barrels of oil is no small amount.
Without added reserves, such as those we believe could be discovered at the refuge, the US will not be able to produce enough oil at the turn of the century to keep the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries from getting back in the driver's seat.
The Reagan administration agrees that conservation is extremely important. But even Draconian measures will not supplant the need to continue the search for and development of US energy resources. Continued discoveries make it possible for America to maintain a high standard of living and the economic good health to carry out effective environmental protections, and to pursue our commitment to freedom at home and elsewhere in the world.
It is important to understand that ample areas of the Arctic plain will remain undeveloped. A significant portion of the refuge's coastal plain is a part of the existing 8 million acres of wilderness in the 19 million-acre refuge; other areas in the US and Canada will not be developed, for the simple reason that no oil has been found or is likely to be found.
Fewer than 13,000 acres - a fraction of 1 percent of the coastal plain leasing area - would be occupied by drilling pads, buildings, roads, and pipeline. And this would be a temporary intrusion, with extensive requirements for the protection of wildlife and habitat.
Our proposal, subject to congressional review and authorization, is to proceed carefully so that wildlife will successfully coexist with oil production. Such safeguards will ensure that when the full area eventually reverts to exclusive wildlife use, it will remain environmentally sound.
Meanwhile, Americans will have benefited in terms of energy availability, jobs, tax revenues, reduced balance-of-trade deficits, and enhanced national security.
Everybody wins - those seeking jobs and mobility as well as those who give a high priority to wildlife and environmental protections.
Don Hodel is the United States secretary of the interior.