As employees left to catch lunch,they noticed a fluffy white polar bear parading around Simon Bolivar Park with a giant,floppy Alaskan salmon.
Along with the Alaska-based creatures,heaps of salmon patties sizzled in a lunch cart,surrounded by signs that read “Enjoy Free Alaskan Salmon.”
All this was designed to catch the eye of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. It didn't,but Kim Elton,Interior's director of Alaska affairs and a former Alaska state senator accepted an oversized postcard from the environmental groups addressed to his boss.
Elton did not eat one of the salmon cakes.
Wildlife groups,including the World Wildlife Fund,the Alaska Wilderness League and the Wilderness Society,had gathered in the park across the street from the department's headquarters to thank Salazar for extending the deadline for people to comment on whether the department should allow oil and gas drilling along Alaska's Arctic Slope and Bristol Bay.
“We are here to thank Secretary Salazar for the long public comment period,” said Kathy Westra,Wilderness Society advocacy communications director.
The Bush administration proposed allowing offshore drilling in Bristol Bay and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas toward the end of its term. Salazar extended the public input period from 60 days to 180 days,ending at midnight Monday.
Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Cindy Shogan and World Wildlife Fund Senior Vice President of field programs Tom Dillon presented Elton with a sample of those 264,651 comments.
Elton declined to comment because the public input period was still open at lunchtime.
Bristol Bay is responsible for 40 percent of the seafood served in the U.S.,Westra said. The free salmon patties were flown directly from Alaska for the event and represented what could be lost if drilling is allowed there.
According to Interior's Minerals Management Service,there is a 40 percent likelihood of a major oil spill if drilling does occur. Technology isn't advanced enough to clean large oil spills in freezing temperatures,said Jan Vertefeuille,WWF's director of advocacy and outreach of field programs.
Wilderness officials said economics would be better if drilling isn't allowed.
Bristol Bay's fishing industry brings $2.2 billion to the local economy each year. Drilling contracts would likely earn $7.7 billion over an expected 25- to 40-year life of the contracts,much less than the fishing industry is expected to earn over the same period.
For now,the groups will wait until Salazar has a chance to rifle through the 264,651 public comments,including some from school children. The department has no deadline for acting.
And like the sign that the giant salmon held during the event,the groups hope Salazar will realize that “no one likes gasoline-flavored salmon.”