Wilderness for the Arctic Refuge

In 2004, I had the privilege to meet an Illinois state senator who was mounting a somewhat unlikely bid for election to the United States Senate.  If elected to national political office, I asked him, what would his position be on oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? 

Being something of a policy wonk, the young candidate displayed a comprehensive understanding of the history of the Refuge and its ecological, esthetic, subsistence and cultural importance.  Acknowledging that no exploration or drilling was occurring in the Refuge, and that it could not without affirmative Congressional approval, he gave strong assurance that he would do what he could in the Senate to make the status quo permanent by further protecting the coastal plain and other critical habitats.

This week, he took an important step in that direction in his current role as President of the United States.  On Sunday afternoon, President Obama and Secretary of the Interior Jewel issued a sweeping set of recommendations to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Among other things, the proposals ask Congress to designate key areas of the Refuge, including its coastal plain, as Wilderness.  If Congress acts on this, it would be the largest wilderness designation since passage of the Wilderness Act, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrated last fall. The proposals also recommend designation of four arctic rivers -- the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning -- as National Wild and Scenic Rivers.   

The administration’s press release was accompanied by an absolutely fabulous one-minute video about the Refuge that you can watch by clicking here

I have personally had the pleasure of making several visits to the Arctic Refuge.  These started with the 2001 backpack trip that I wrote about in the four-part blog series titled “Refuge."  My most recent visit was just last summer, for the Kongakut River trip that I described in “Nurturing the Land Ethic, Part 2.  As a result, I know at first hand the esthetic, even spiritual, values of this special place. 

Our history as a nation has included countless times when we have run roughshod over these values in the names of progress and development, even manifest destiny.  Now, in part because the United States is experiencing an unprecedented boom in oil and gas production, we can afford -- perhaps for the first time in our national history -- to make responsible long-term choices, sparing this iconic landscape and critical wildlife habitat for use and enjoyment by future generations.

Immediately following the administration’s proposal, a coalition of environmental groups issued a press release urging prompt implementation.  These groups included many that I have written about in this blog, such as the Alaska Wilderness League, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the NRDC, Outdoor Afro and The Wilderness Society. 

These organizations all provided strong statements in support, but I particularly liked the generosity of spirit shown by the Episcopal Church, which commended “the Administration for taking a critical step toward permanently protecting the ecological integrity of this sacred land.  We support permanent Wilderness designation for the Coastal Plain both to conserve God’s creation and to safeguard the subsistence rights of our Gwich’in brothers and sisters.”

Recognition and support for the human rights of the Gwich’in and other indigenous groups is a critical element of the administration’s proposal.  Sarah James, Chair of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, commented:

“This is great news for the Gwich’in people. The Fish and Wildlife report agrees with our Chiefs that the caribou birthplace on the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain must be protected for future generations.  This is a human rights issue.  Oil development there would hurt the caribou and threaten the Gwich’in way of life.  We ask the President to take the next step to permanent protection of this place we call ‘the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.’”

The general political consensus is that the chances of the current Congress implementing the President’s Wilderness recommendations for the Refuge are essentially zero.  This is not just a Republican versus Democratic Party issue.  Within Alaska, politicians of all parties, in both state and federal delegations, are overwhelmingly opposed to the President's proposals for protecting the Refuge, and have not been shy about saying so.

Stay tuned for some thoughts about that political context next week.

Northern Passages author, Bob Osborne, urging President Obama to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness.  Photo taken at Agiak Lake, Gates of the Arctic National Park, in August 2014.

Northern Passages author, Bob Osborne, urging President Obama to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness.  Photo taken at Agiak Lake, Gates of the Arctic National Park, in August 2014.