On the final day of May 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke – the man responsible for preserving America’s public lands – stood before the Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference and declared Alaska “open for business.”
Surrounded by oil industry executives, Secretary Zinke signed Secretarial Order 3352, calling for a new assessment of oil and gas beneath the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska, as well as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in the northwest.
In the Reserve, the administration seeks to dismantle a management plan the Interior Department under President Obama spent years working on with tribal communities, local governments, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group and others. For the Arctic Refuge, the announcement confirmed that the Trump administration has the Coastal Plain — a pristine region and vibrant nursery for caribou, denning polar bears and countless migratory birds — squarely in its sights. It also came on the heels of the introduction of Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, which included a controversial line item assuming future revenue from drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Upon the announcement, budget director Mick Mulvaney declared that opening the Refuge was “a critical part of what we’re seeking to do, and it is a priority for the president.”
Hiking the Arctic Refuge, with the Brooks Range in the background. (Alaska Wilderness League)
In July, the House Budget Committee announced its 2018 fiscal budget, which included reconciliation instructions to the House Natural Resources Committee that provide an expedited path for pro-oil members of Congress to open the Arctic Refuge for development. However, the decision to drill in one of our most pristine and remote wilderness areas, where polar bears, caribou and countless migratory birds raise their young, should not be reduced to a mere line item in the federal budget. Congress and the American people must consider the decision to sacrifice this iconic region to Big Oil on its own merits, not force it through on the coattails of a larger bill.
That is why the time to take action is now. Two-thirds of Americans oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge, with a majority — 52 percent — strongly opposed. It is time to tell Congress to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its Coastal Plain out of the federal budget process.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska Wilderness League)
The Arctic Refuge is a Place like No Other
Truly enjoying the great outdoors is only possible when we recognize the importance of respecting and protecting North America’s last great wild places. The Arctic Refuge is just that—a sweeping landscape, bursting with wildflowers and framed by the awe-inspiring Brooks Mountain Range. It is unparalleled throughout the world, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park in terms of iconic American destinations.
The Kongakut River in the Arctic Refuge (Dave Shreffler)
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the ultimate outdoors destination. There are no roads, no landing strips, no comforts of home. It is a place where the lagoons, beaches and salt marshes of the Arctic Ocean coast lead inward to broad expanses of low-lying plants along the Coastal Plain. Where traversing up and over the majestic Brooks Range will lead you south into the interior of Alaska, and into boreal forest as far as the eye can see. It is a place where all three species of North American bears — black, polar and grizzly — call home, and is the most important land denning habitat for polar bears in the entire Alaskan Arctic. It is a place where caribou roam the land as part of the longest land migration route of any land mammal on Earth. And, it is a place where as many as 160 species of migratory birds nest and patrol the skies.
Looking down on the great plains of the Arctic Refuge (Alaska Wilderness League)
To the Gwich’in people, the pristine Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge — where the Porcupine Caribou Herd gives birth to some 40,000 calves each summer — is “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” The Gwich’in have depended on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for millennia, but their connection to the caribou goes far deeper than traditional subsistence hunting: the Gwich’in believe that they are guardians of the herd, and that the fate of their people and the caribou are forever entwined.
The Porcupine Caribou Herd (Alaska Wilderness League)
Yet, the very existence of the Arctic Refuge remains under constant threat from outside interests that would plunder it for short-term profit from oil. If we choose to destroy the Arctic Refuge, we destroy one of the wildest places left in the world.
The Risk of Development is Real
Big Oil and its allies in Washington, DC, however, are again pushing to open the Arctic Refuge’s fragile Coastal Plain to drilling. The Trump administration has stated a goal of increasing production of fossil fuels by opening up public lands and waters. The White House in May released its budget proposal, which included $1.8 billion in speculative revenues from drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Then there was the aforementioned Zinke secretarial order – issued at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference, no less – targeting expanded drilling in the Arctic.
The clear buzzwords coming from the Trump administration?
And in Congress, both the House and Senate introduced bills to drill the Refuge in the very first week of the 115th Congress. Then in July 2017, the House Budget Committee released its fiscal year 2018 budget resolution, which included revenue-generating instructions to the House Natural Resources Committee totaling $5 billion dollars and speculating that it could raise revenue from Arctic Refuge drilling.
Will this be the fate for the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain? (Florian Schulz/www.florianschulz.org)
Support Continues to Grow for Protecting the Arctic Refuge
Support for protecting the Arctic Refuge has always been strong and bipartisan, and Alaska Wilderness League has been at the forefront of garnering strong public and congressional backing, and continuing the groundswell of public support.
President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, protected the area now known as the Arctic Refuge as the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960, and was expanded in 1980 by Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Representative Morris Udall (D-AZ) introduced the first bill in the House to designate the Coastal Plain as wilderness in 1986, Senator Bill Roth (R-DE) introduced the first version in the Senate in 1987, and both chambers have introduced similar legislation in every session of Congress since.
In January 2015, President Barack Obama announced that it was time to take the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off the table to development. He recommended that Congress protect its sensitive Coastal Plain and other important areas as Wilderness.
That same month, Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA) introduced the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act, to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain as Wilderness. A few months later, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a companion bill with the historic support of 34 senators. Those bills were introduced again in both the House and Senate in 2017. In the Senate, Senators Markey and Bennet introduced S.820 with a record-breaking 40 co-sponsors at introduction. In the House, Representatives Huffman, Fitzpatrick, Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) introduced H.R. 1889 with bipartisan support.
Philippe and Ashlan Cousteau in the Arctic Refuge (Alaska Wilderness League)
Nearly thirty years after the first Congressional attempt to drill there, support for the Arctic Refuge continues to grow. Today the outdoor industry is part of a choir of voices working on behalf of the Arctic Refuge that also includes conservation and religious leaders, Native leaders, communities of color, outdoor enthusiasts and veterans. These groups are joining from across the U.S. today to act on climate change, demand justice for Alaska Natives, and call on the federal government to establish the strongest possible protection for the Arctic Refuge.
Getting people outdoors and enjoying America’s wild places is at the heart of the outdoor industry, and we must conserve and protect our public lands so that we always have the chance to enjoy camping, hiking, bicycling, fishing, kayaking or wildlife viewing, and the myriad of other outdoor activities that these lands provide. After all, these lands do not belong to oil industry execs, or politicians, or the wealthiest of the wealthy. They belong to all Americans in equal measure.
The Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a nursery for denning polar bears and countless migratory birds, and the calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd. It is one of the finest examples of wilderness remaining anywhere in the world. President Trump’s budget proposal includes drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and we need your help to tell Congress: keep development out of the Arctic Refuge, because once destroyed, it is gone forever.