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Begich Urges Beluga Habitat Exemption for Port of Anchorage

Continues Focus on Protecting Essential Habitat While Permitting Development

Citing the Port of Anchorage's vital importance to Alaska's economy and to America's national security, Sen. Mark Begich on March 3 urged the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to exclude certain areas in Cook Inlet from critical habitat designation for beluga whales.

In a letter to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, Begich called NOAA's proposal to establish more than 3,000 square miles of critical habitat in Cook Inlet "an unnecessary overreach which could jeopardize responsible development in the Inlet."

"I am particularly concerned this proposal could halt use and expansion of the Port of Anchorage, which is vital to the economy of our state and our nation's national security," Begich said in his comments.

The senator's comments echo those delivered by the Port during NOAA's public comment period to review the proposed designation of thousands of square miles in Cook Inlet as critical habitat essential for the survival and recovery of the Inlet's distinct population of beluga whales. The Bush administration determined this stock of beluga whale was endangered under the Endangered Species Act, which then requires NOAA to designate habitat essential for the whale.

Begich said the Port of Anchorage has statewide and national importance, serving 80 percent of the state's maritime trade and 90 percent of the population through the movement of petroleum, cement, iron, steel and lumber, household goods, vehicles and food. More than 4.3 million tons of goods are moved annually. The Port provides 100 percent of the jet fuel to Elmendorf Air Force Base and 80 percent to the international airport and offers the only active Foreign Trade Zone services presently available in Alaska.

The senator also cited the Port's strategic importance to Alaska and the nation as one of 19 National Strategic Seaports designed by the U.S. Maritime Administration. He quoted a recent letter from Alaska Command Commander Lt. General Dana T. Atkins, which says ". . . the Port of Anchorage is critical to the success of military operations in, and deploying out of, the State of Alaska." Begich notes that NOAA's analysis failed to acknowledge or factor in the Port's strategic military importance, which is a requirement under the Endangered Species Act, when evaluating critical habitat.

Begich urged U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to use a special designation under the Endangered Species Act to exclude areas from the critical habitat designation to permit the Port expansion to continue and to accommodate marine transportation to and from the Port.

"Given the combination of the well managed protective measures around the Port, the preponderance of monitoring data indicating the Port's operation is not placing beluga whales at risk, and the high conformity of the Port's status with ESA Section 4(b) (2) criteria, I strongly urge NOAA to exclude from critical habitat certain marine areas essential for safe navigation and to accommodate the Port's expansion," Begich wrote.

At the same time, Begich noted the key role belugas play in the lives of Alaskans and urged that their habitat be safeguarded to keep the whale population healthy. He said Alaskans already have taken many such steps.

"Alaskans have already teamed up with NOAA and many other agencies, businesses and citizens to highlight the importance of our natural assets and to implement projects to protect and restore our coastal environment," he wrote. "These initiatives include a $6 million investment to monitor the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Treatment plant, which led to a determination by the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA that the plant is not affecting belugas."

"The success of our environmental work is validated by tissue sample tests of Cook Inlet belugas that show contaminant levels substantially below levels found in beluga populations outside of the Inlet," Begich wrote.

Begich met last week with NOAA Administrator Lubchenco in his Washington, D.C., office and plans another meeting with her next week, along with other members of Alaska's congressional delegation, to discuss beluga habitat and other Alaska ESA issues.

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