After receiving more than 1 million public comments requesting stronger protections for America’s iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, President Obama and Interior Secretary Jewell unveiled the Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) yesterday, recommending a Wilderness designation for the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain. This reverses the longstanding Reagan-era recommendation to drill for oil in the Coastal Plain. The president has sent the message to Congress that the administration – like the American people – wants to see Congress finally act to protect this sacred place. A Wilderness recommendation to Congress is the most significant shift in momentum towards permanent protection that any president has made since the Refuge was established by President Eisenhower.
The Conservation Alliance has been involved in the effort to protect the Arctic Refuge for the past decade. It is an iconic and remote landscape notable for its wildlife and outstanding recreation opportunities. I had the opportunity to visit the Refuge several years ago with a group of outdoor industry leaders. We floated the Canning River, which flows north from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. During the trip, we saw wolves, grizzlies, musk oxen, and countless bird species. On the last day, a herd of hundreds of caribou moved through our campsite, seemingly unfazed by our presence. We swatted mosquitoes, caught Arctic grayling, and hiked in the midnight sun. My words fail when describing the experience.
Much of the Arctic Refuge is already designated Wilderness, the highest level of protection we can give to federal lands. But, there is a 1.5-million-acre strip of land – known as the Coastal Plain – where the refuge meets the Arctic Ocean that has been at the center of controversy for decades. The rivers of the Arctic Refuge all flow into the Beaufort Sea through the Coastal Plain. Along with the Brooks Range, the Coastal Plain bookends the 19-million-acre refuge into one of the most pristine, intact, and spectacular landscapes left on our planet. Unfortunately, the Coastal Plain also has known oil reserves that oil companies and their political allies would love to exploit. Since visiting the Arctic Refuge, I have often thought what it would be like to take that singular journey from the Brooks Range down the Canning River, ending at an Arctic coast riddled with oil wells. The contrast would be an insult to the eye, and the landscape.
President Obama’s Wilderness recommendation for the Coastal Plain is important because it is now the official position of the US government that this important area should be protected rather than opened for energy development. And it will be managed as such for the life of the CCP signed yesterday.
The Conservation Alliance thanks President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for taking this important step toward final, permanent protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And we call on Congress to act on the President’s recommendation, and pass a bill that designates the Coastal Plain as Wilderness.
To thank President Obama for this exciting news, please sign the petition at: http://www.protectthearcticrefuge.org/