(RNS) The Episcopal bishop of Alaska has asked President Clinton todeclare the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to oil drillingbefore he leaves office, a move that could keep President-elect GeorgeW. Bush from tapping the area's estimated billions of barrels of oil.

Bishop Mark MacDonald wrote to Clinton along with a group of 22remote parishes, most of which are only accessible by airplane or boat.MacDonald said he was reluctant to enter the political fray over theissue but said time is running out.

"Since our business is to proclaim the gospel, we are reluctant tospeak out in the so-called political arena," MacDonald wrote.

"Nevertheless, the urgency of the hour and the integrity of the messagecompel us to act."

MacDonald's main concern is the fate of the Gwich'in tribe, a NativeAmerican nation that relies on porkupine caribou herds native to thecoastal plain of the refuge. MacDonald said both the caribou and theGwich'in would be threatened by oil exploration.

"Development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a threat to thePorkupine Caribou Herd, is a threat to the Gwich'in," MacDonald wrote."Although we have heard much about the environment from both sides ofthe issue, we wish to underline, with charity and respect for all, thatthe Gwich'in and their way of life is the greatest risk of development."

MacDonald cautioned he was not speaking for all Episcopalians norall Alaskans. Still, MacDonald's letter angered Alaska Republican Sen.
Ted Stevens, who linked MacDonald with "extremists" who want to"illegally" block oil exploration in the region.

Bush said he would open up the arctic refuge to oil exploration aspart of his energy policy, but environmentalists say the policy wouldsquander the region's pristine natural beauty and threaten wildlife. IfClinton were to designate the area as a national monument, Congresscould still vote to allow oil exploration, and Stevens said there is noneed to add the federal designation to the land.