I expect that I will be writing about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to an alarming degree in the coming months and years. This is because I expect the Refuge to be under increasing attack in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election.
Let me just share a few introductory thoughts at this point, with more to come over time. As readers of this blog know, I have traveled in the Refuge on a number of occasions since 2001, by foot and by raft. I regard the Refuge, and particularly the Coastal Plain that is the birthing area of the Porcupine caribou herd, as a very special place. I also respect the fact that the indigenous Gwich’in people view it as sacred, the place where life begins.
The Coastal Plain has been in a legal limbo with respect to oil and gas development since 1980. Under provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, some parts of the Refuge were designated as federally protected wilderness, but not the Coastal Plain. Instead, it is part of an area that cannot be opened to oil and gas development without an affirmative act of Congress. But ANILCA failed to give the area permanent protection; that too would take an affirmative act of Congress.
In what seems like a distant era, President Obama asked Congress last year to designate additional core areas of the Refuge, including the Coastal Plain, as wilderness, which would provide permanent protection from oil and gas development there. To date, Congress has failed to take that action.
What now portends under a Trump administration and two Republican controlled houses in Congress? There will almost certainly be a concerted effort, in the name of jobs and development, to open the Coastal Plain to oil and gas exploration and production.
I will have more to say about this if and when those proposals are made. For now, let me just say that I do not oppose oil and gas production everywhere. Until we transition as a society to more sustainable energy sources, it will be appropriate to drill in some, indeed many, places. But that does not mean all places.
The Refuge is special. It is a unique environment that is critical to the survival of numerous animal species. With respect to our own species, sacred values count. So do the esthetic and spiritual values that people other than Alaska Natives can find there. We will all be diminished if the Coastal Plain is developed.
A key point in my mind is that development is a one-way street. Today, the Refuge is one of our last places, at landscape and ecosystem scale, that remains essentially as it has been since before the first intrepid humans crossed into North America. We can always drill it in the future should we decide to do so. But if we drill it now, there is no going back. Ever. It will never be possible to return to the pristine, undeveloped state that this special place enjoys today.