THE Alaska Native people who live in the most barren and desolate region of America support oil exploration and development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Inupiat Eskimos have seen firsthand that oil development can coexist with their aboriginal lifestyle, as it has in Prudhoe Bay for more than 20 years.
Many of these Eskimos still rely largely upon a subsistence lifestyle - living off the land, the sea, and its wildlife. But in other ways, the revenues from oil development have allowed them to progress from third-world living conditions to living standards of the 20th century. That means heated schools for their children, clean water to drink, and flushing toilets instead of "honey" buckets.
These are basic necessities most Americans take for granted. But in many Alaskan villages, these are new and welcome additions. Unfortunately, many villages are still waiting for funds for these necessities.
The native people of Alaska support oil development because it has dramatically improved their lives and the lives of their children. More than 70 percent of Alaskans also support development, as does the Democratic governor, the Republican congressional delegation, and the Alaska Federation of Natives - the statewide organization that represents traditional native interests.
In the coming weeks, Congress will debate whether to allow oil development in a small section of ANWR. Those who oppose Alaska's effort want to turn the 1.5 million acres into a permanent wilderness area. However, it's important to remember that the federal government currently controls 248 million acres of land in Alaska - 38 percent of all the federal lands in the United States. This is one and a half times the size of Texas.
Some other points to consider:
*Ninety-nine percent of ANWR won't be touched. The entire ANWR area consists of 19 million acres - an area the size of South Carolina. Eight million acres (42 percent) has been designated as wilderness area.
The coastal plain of ANWR, designated as a study area for possible oil development in 1980, comprises 1.5 million acres. The area that would be affected by the oil development consists of only 12,000 acres in the coastal plain - about the size of Dulles Airport outside Washington.
In essence, allowing for oil development would be the equivalent of building an airport in South Carolina.
*Alaska has the safest oil fields in the world. More than 20 years of oil development in Prudhoe Bay has proven that oil development can occur in an environmentally sound manner in the Arctic. Technology has improved, and we can do an even better job in ANWR - provided we plan correctly and provide superior environmental safeguards.
*Wildlife has thrived since oil production began. The entire coastal plain may be a part-time home to some species, yet very few would be affected by the development. The caribou herd that migrates through the existing Prudhoe Bay oil field has tripled since development began 20 years ago. Alaskans have done such a good job protecting wildlife that there has not been one death of any animal because of oil development there.
*Act slowly, not during a crisis. By planning ahead, we can develop this small area in the coastal plain safely. If oil exploration were authorized today, it would be at least 10 to 15 years before oil production would begin. Under this careful timetable, there's no doubt that we can conduct oil exploration and development in the most environmentally sound manner.
But if we wait until there's another oil embargo, like the one in the early 1970s, Congress, the White House, and the American public will demand the oil from ANWR immediately. This would not allow us to take the necessary environmental safeguards Alaskans want in order to do this safely.
* The US needs Alaska's oil. Prudhoe Bay currently accounts for 24 percent of US oil production, but this is declining. The coastal plain would replace this oil, and governmental geologists estimate there could be from 3.2 billion to 9.2 billion barrels in the coastal plain.
If 9.2 billion barrels of oil are recovered, the net national economic benefit would be $325 billion in the US. It could create 732,000 new jobs throughout the nation, according to a 1990 study by Wharton Econometrics Forecasting Associates.
In addition, the initial leasing of oil would create $1.3 billion for the federal treasury.
It's also important to consider that the US is currently spending more than $65 billion each year for imported oil, which is a key component in America's growing foreign trade deficit.
Development and the environment have coexisted in Alaska for many years and can continue to do so. Alaskans are true conservationists and are committed to developing the coastal plain in the most environmentally responsible manner.