At the 11th hour on Jan. 22, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) quietly extended the initial public comment period in an environmental review process aimed at creating a new management plan (the Integrated Activity Plan or IAP) for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Reserve).
Cover image: Caribou in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. (U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
Already, BLM has rescheduled public meetings with little notice, plus the government shutdown is still going strong and the agency has only extended the public process for one week. BLM’s current rush job, meant to cater to ConocoPhillips and the oil industry, is unforgivable, especially when compared to the extensive work that went into—and broad stakeholder support that was garnered for—the current management plan.
This IAP process seeks to undo the existing management plan that was put in place under the Obama administration less than five years ago. As part of this effort, BLM is seeking to eliminate important protections for key ecological Special Areas in the Reserve that Alaska Wilderness League and others have fought tirelessly for decades to protect. And as with many oil and gas projects across the country and offshore, the agency is continuing to press forward despite the current government shutdown. On Jan. 17, the Alaska Wilderness League—along with several of our partners—sent a request to BLMasking the agency to extend the public comment period due to the unavailability of staff to answer questions or serve as a public resource. What we’ve received is one additional week with no notice of the extension, and still no end to the shutdown in sight.
The current management plan, approved in 2013, received strong public support and put in place sensible conservation protections for 11 million acres in the Reserve, setting aside five Special Areas of exceptional wildlife and wilderness value: Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, Utukok River Uplands, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay. President Obama’s Department of the Interior (DOI) spent years working with tribal communities, local governments, the state of Alaska, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group and the public on this plan. Alaska Wilderness League, along with our partners, was integral to seeing this plan put in place with strong ecological protections. We worked diligently to advocate for key protections within the Reserve—helping to collect and deliver 400,000 public comments, collect 30 regional and local tribal resolutions representing 90 villages across Alaska, and organize dozens of events across the country to educate the public on the importance of Reserve Special Areas.
America’s Western Arctic is teeming with wildlife and rich with landscapes worthy of strong protection. For one, Teshekpuk Lake provides vital habitat for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd and includes globally significant Important Bird Areas that support threatened spectacled eiders, king eiders, red-throated loons, dunlins and buff-breasted sandpipers. Teshekpuk Lake and its surrounding wetlands are ecologically unique and one of the most important wildlife habitats in the entire circumpolar Arctic. Gray wolves, brown bears, polar bears, spotted seals, the 45,000-strong Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd as well as countless migratory birds all thrive in this area.
Spectacled eiders in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Still, it’s no surprise that the drive to open these protected areas in the Reserve, especially Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, stems directly from the Trump administration’s favor factory for the oil and gas industry. ConocoPhillip’s interest in more acreage within the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area is no secret. ConocoPhillips is doubling down on development in the Reserve, pushing forward with current projects and buying hundreds of thousands of acres for future development, continuing to build upon its growing spider web of oil and gas development projects.
The League is committed to doing everything we can to protect the integrity of the current management plan for the Reserve. Any revisions to the current management plan should result in expanding protections in places important to wildlife and local communities, not offering more acres of our public lands to the oil and gas industry. Upsetting this carefully crafted plan to protect public lands in favor of oil and gas development is irresponsible.