Pres. Bill Clinton has always opposed oil exploration on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) Coastal Plain in northeastern Alaska.
His administration has repeatedly threatened to veto any bills to allow exploration on the 1.5 million acre plain, although the area, just east of Prudhoe Bay oil field, is easily the most promising undrilled region in the nation.
Now the Alaska congressional delegation is concerned that Clinton, to enhance his administration's already sterling environmental legacy, might declare the coastal plain a national monument-a backdoor approach to preventing development.
The 1906 Antiquities Act allows the president to protect historic landmarks and other areas of scientific interest by designating them national monuments, without the consent or advice of Congress.
Clinton has never been shy about using his power to create national monuments. He has given the appellation to eight sites this year alone.
In September 1996 Clinton created the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, precluding development of thousands of acres of oil leases. Lawsuits are still pending to overturn that.
Utah congressmen complained that designation was a pure political ploy, coming 48 days before Clinton's reelection.
Doing the same for ANWR also would be a smart political move. It would delight environmentalists, some of whom have reservations about the candidacy of Vice-Pres. Al Gore (who also opposes ANWR drilling).
And should Gore lose the election, Clinton would have all the more reason to lock up ANWR before he leaves office.
Reacting to Grand Staircase-Escalante, the House of Representatives has passed a bill limiting the president's powers. Senators say the bill "lacks teeth" and have a stronger measure pending. But neither has a chance of getting enacted this session.
Alaska surely would challenge the legality of an ANWR National Monument.
The state thinks it has good legal grounds. After Pres. Jimmy Carter created several monuments in Alaska in the late 1970s, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Act in 1980.
That law required the Interior Department to study the ANWR Coastal Plain and precluded oil and gas development unless Congress specifically authorized it.
The law also deterred the president or secretary of the interior from carving out additional national monuments in Alaska.
It declared that any such action would be voided unless Congress passed a law affirming the action within 1 year.
Alaskans call that part of the bill the "no more" clause.
But legal authorities say the clause is far from airtight. And political observers say it's far from certain that Congress could muster the votes to remove a national monument designation for ANWR.
Alaskan congressmen say Clinton wouldn't worry about the possibility of an eventual reversal. In the next few months, he has a lot to gain-and nothing to lose-by locking up ANWR.