Scientists and soldiers can no longer keep these paradises to themselves

Sitting on my desk is an illegal acquisition, a black pebble the size of a walnut. I picked it up some years ago on the slopes of Cape Crozier on Ross Island in the Antarctic. This vast wilderness of rock and ice lies on a cliff overlooking the Ross Sea and is celebrated as destination of the "worst journey in the world".

This was the title of the book written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard about a trip taken by him and two colleagues from Scott's 1911 polar expedition to acquire the eggs of the Emperor penguin. The storm shelter of stones, canvas and bits of sledge from which they barely escaped alive still lies on the cape, literally frozen in time. I was visiting it with the doughty New Zealander David Harrowfield, recorder and conserver of the relics of mankind's earliest settlements on the Antarctic continent, including the vulnerable Scott and Shackleton huts.

The spot must be one of the most breathtaking on earth, looking south over the Ross ice shelf towards the pole and north to the sweeping ocean icebergs. But it is forbidden to take anything from this land. No matter that removing my pebble had as much ecological impact as taking a grain of sand from the Sahara. The rulers of the greatest nanny state on earth, Antarctica, had declared it their own and only they can remove bits of it. I await the arrival of the Antarctic police, handcuffs at the ready.

We are in the midst of a flurry of centenaries of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. One is of Shackleton's landing at Cape Royds and another, in three years, is of Scott's last, fatal voyage on the Terra Nova. Meanwhile, a combination of global warming and soaring raw material prices has seen a sudden revival of 50-year-old territorial aggrandisement, straining the agreements that govern the status of the polar regions.

Russia has claimed the mineral rights to the sea bed under the north pole. America is impeding conservation agreements so as to press ahead with its Alaskan oil and gas exploration. Britain is celebrating the centenary of its first claim to Antarctica by demanding a million square kilometres of the south Atlantic ocean bed. This is under the UN law of the sea convention, based on adjacent territorial claims in Antarctica.

Tourism has quadrupled in the past decade and continues to accelerate, despite the sinking last November of a cruise ship that hit an iceberg. Numbers rose last year alone by 14% to 37,000, almost all by ship. Tourists are banned from staying ashore and are strictly regulated as to what they can and cannot do.

They are hated by scientists who "won" the continent under the 1959 Antarctic treaty and are reluctant to relinquish it or share it with others. Annual Antarctic conferences yield such headlines as "Tourism threat to earth's last great wilderness". Scientists apparently pose no threat.

This double standard is well illustrated in the admirable Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica. A furious diktat against tourists picking up rocks or even feathers is carried alongside a scientist boasting the riches he has garnered from the place: "The problem is not in finding the fossils but in deciding which ones to collect."

The 1959 treaty is regularly proclaimed as a rare success of world government, albeit one protected by geographical vastness and climatic ferocity. It has held while everyone turned a blind eye to the Americans, who agreed to abide by it as long as they could do what they liked, including build bases at the poles. They are now constructing a 1,000-mile ice highway from McMurdo Station to the south pole. A brown cloud of pollution hovers off the Ross Shelf air base, where not just Hercules transport planes but Globemaster military jets are now able to land.

I can eulogise with the most florid romantic about the virgin wastes of ice, but I cannot see why nobody should be allowed to visit polar regions except scientists and eccentric explorers. The north and south ice caps are manifestly thawing and this is making both exploitation and tourism more feasible. The idea that a few lucky people should have exclusive rights to a mass of the world's surface is bizarre. It also leads to duplication and ridiculous national rivalry, such as India's building of a third base to prove that it is geologically part of Antarctica.

Energy conservation may be a global imperative but to deny the peoples of the earth the mineral wealth of the Arctic regions is perverse. Aluminium, diamonds and even gold have been found in Greenland, so much so that the country is contemplating a return to the warm summers of the ninth century and independence of Denmark. Oil, gas and coal abound. If they are economic and their extraction can be governed by suitable environmental protocols - as is scientific research - what is the problem?

There is no reason why millions should go cold or hungry because some people like the idea of somewhere on Earth being pristine - or a private research laboratory. The conservation of the polar bear is a worthy cause, but like lions and elephants they can cohabit with man. To use their cause to forbid mineral extraction in the Arctic is as silly as it would be to plead the Emperor penguin as a reason for banning scientists from the Antarctic.

The condemnation of tourists for daring to encroach on these wonderful landscapes is equally unacceptable. These are not destinations for the masses. They are too distant and costly, and tolerable only in summer. But anyone, duly supervised, should be allowed to enjoy the wonders of polar regions, as of the world's deserts and forests. Ice is ecologically fragile, but these lands are vast. Besides, the best ambassadors for polar conservation are those who pay good money to see it.

An apocalyptic report this week from Brussels bewailed a northwards migration of mankind as the ice caps melt and the tropics become less inhabitable. This is surely a natural balancing of the occupants of planet earth in response to climate change. The mining settlements round the Arctic Circle, the tourists on the Antarctic peninsula and the American base at McMurdo Station are not going to shrink.

What is clear is that some new governing framework must be developed to meet these changes, wider in accountability than to Big Science. There is no way national self-interest will be kept at bay unless a stronger body is granted sovereign authority, presumably under the United Nations.

Scientists and soldiers simply cannot tell tourists and prospectors to get lost from a chunk of the planet. The beauties and the riches of these regions are increasingly accessible and must be governed for the benefit of all, as should be the skies and the oceans. They are paradises made in hell, but they are no longer unknowable or untouchable. Those days are over.

Simon Jenkins