Republicans in the U.S. Congress have their best opportunity in years to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development.

Congress has addressed the issue many times since legislation in 1980 put the question in the hands of lawmakers. Republicans have generally supported drilling, and Democrats have tended to oppose it. This time around, the campaign to open up the refuge has not only the strong support of President Bush, but also the votes of several newly elected Republicans in Congress.

Sarah James says she knows what's at stake. The Gwich'in Indian from Arctic Village, Alaska, was raised in a traditional nomadic tribe that lives in close harmony with the Porcupine River caribou herd. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is her backyard. It is also home to polar bears, musk oxen and an annual influx of millions of migrating birds.

In Washington last week, she sang their praises in a prayer to the four winds. Ms. James is part of a delegation of Native Americans who came to the Capitol to voice their opposition to proposed oil drilling in ANWR.

"This is how I grew up to take care of the earth," she said. "We have got to have that clean air to breathe, and we have got to have that clean water and land and life. This is one way we can teach the world that this is the right thing for their kids and our kids."

California Democrat Barbara Boxer has championed the same cause in the U.S. Senate. But she says there is more at stake in ANWR than the fate of a pristine wilderness.

"The bottom line of it all is that it is disastrous policy," Senator Boxer contends. "When the world looks at us, they are going to look at the way we treat our people. They are going to look at the way we treat our native peoples. They are going to look at the way we treat our environment. They are going to look at the way we are using up the resources of the world. It is really a moment that is reflective of our entire society."

The Bush Administration and many Republicans in Congress argue that ANWR is important to the U.S. economy and national security. The United States imports more than half the oil it consumes. Demand for oil is increasing.

In a major energy policy address in Columbus, Ohio, last week, President Bush made a plea for greater energy independence. "To produce more energy at home, we need to open up new areas to environmentally responsible exploration for oil and natural gas," he said, "including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

The President said the yet-untapped refuge represents America's largest single greatest onshore prospect for oil, which at its peak could produce more oil than 41 states combined. "Congress needs to look at the science, and look at the facts," he said, "and send me a bill that includes exploration in ANWR for the sake of our country."

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton -- whose agency manages ANWR -- supports a secure and stable energy supply within the United States. She says a recent visit to ANWR convinced her that oil extraction would not compromise the environment.

"If we look where can we produce this much oil with the least impact on the environment, I think we come back to ANWR being the best place," she says. "You can use technology like ice roads that don't require gravel, don't require paving, don't require disturbing the ground, that melt away?instead of having a bigger infrastructure. There are lots of things that you can do...that are more protective of the environment."

Senator Boxer disagrees. She says America cannot drill its way to energy security. At current rates of U.S. consumption, she maintains, ANWR's oil reserves would provide just a six-month supply -- far less than Department of the Interior estimates. The California Democrat also says drilling would do irreparable harm to the area's fragile ecosystem.

Instead, she supports energy savings through conservation. "We know that just by tightening fuel economy standards, just by making SUVs have similar fuel economy standards as a normal automobile, we would not need to drill in the Arctic," says Ms. Boxer. "We would have Arctic fields galore because, when you conserve, it is a never ending Arctic field."

The debate over ANWR will come to a vote on the Senate floor this week. Drilling provisions are being considered as part of a federal budget resolution, which could pass with a simple Senate majority.

Senator Boxer says Democrats are a few votes shy of defeating the measure. She is confident that uncommitted Senators will reconsider and vote to protect one of America's most controversial natural treasures.

[ANWR photos courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior]