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

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

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

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

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

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

MacDonald cautioned he was not speaking for all Episcopalians nor all 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 as part of his energy policy, but environmentalists say the policy would squander the region's pristine natural beauty and threaten wildlife. If Clinton were to designate the area as a national monument, Congress could still vote to allow oil exploration, and Stevens said there is no need to add the federal designation to the land.
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