Policy Pulse: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Proposed

Arctic Refuge_credit USFWS

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a spectacular place, and League policy calls for protecting the entire refuge with full wilderness protection. The nearly 20 million acre refuge on Alaska’s northeast Arctic Ocean coast is famous as the destination of one of the longest mammal migrations on earth: the 1,500 mile journey of the Porcupine caribou herd. However, the nation’s largest national wildlife refuge has many other values. The Gwich’in people have been living off the caribou migration for many generations. Polar bears, musk ox, wolves, and more than 200 bird species can be found on the refuge, which includes mountain ranges, rivers, and a rich coastal plain. The refuge was created in 1960 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.”

More than seven million acres of the refuge are already managed as wilderness, but that does not include many of the areas that are most valuable to wildlife and people. On January 25, as part of a required “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” for the refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that more than 12 million additional acres be protected as wilderness.

Only Congress can designate a wilderness area under the Wilderness Act, and the current Congress is not likely to do so here. However, this recommendation gives the Fish and Wildlife Service more authority to manage these areas to retain their wilderness values until Congress acts on its recommendation. This means that approximately 98 percent of the refuge will be managed as wilderness – unless Congress intervenes.

The fate of the refuge’s coastal plain has been hotly debated for decades because of the oil and gas deposits estimated to lie beneath it. Yet even the most optimistic estimates of oil and gas production from the refuge are a drop in the bucket compared with our country’s overall energy consumption. This proposal essentially says that oil and gas drilling is not compatible with the refuge’s purposes of wildlife, wilderness, and recreation. Comparing it to Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said, “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.” The conservation plan also calls for adding four of the refuge’s rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.