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Happy 50th Birthday to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: May it Continue to Prosper

Chuck Clusen

Posted December 6, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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Today is the 50th birthday of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  On December 6, 1960, President Eisenhower established the Arctic Wildlife Range of about 9 million acres in the northeast corner of Alaska after Congress failed to protect it.  It included the highest peaks of the Brooks Range—over 9,000 feet, the southern flank—including several powerful rivers flowing down to the Yukon River, the coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean to the north and the barrier islands along the Beaufort Sea.  It included every Arctic life zone in the U.S. and it was and is still totally undeveloped—no roads, bridges, visitor centers etc.  It was an enormous triumphant victory for conservationists such as Olaus and Mardy Murie and many others across Alaska and the nation. 

Twenty years later on December 2, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Act of 1980, which renamed the Range to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, expanded it to 19 million acres—the size of South Carolina, designated most of the original Range as a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System, and created as a compromise the 1002 Area consisting of the coastal plain where oil and wildlife studies would be conducted leaving a latter Congress the option to open it to oil and gas development or designate it as Wilderness. 

Now, for 35 years conservationists have fought to keep the oil industry out of this very sensitive birthing zone for caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears, Arctic fox and many other species.  At least nine times we have had to mobilize major campaigns to save this area from oil development.  Fortunately, the Obama Administration strongly opposes oil and gas development for the coastal zone of the Refuge.  Today, at the unveiling of a magnificent new movie about the Refuge at the Interior Department made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar renewed the Obama Administration’s opposition to oil and gas development on the coastal plain.

Unfortunately, several House Republicans that will be in the new Republican House starting in January, as well as the Alaska delegation, will be strongly pushing to open the coastal zone to oil and gas development.  NRDC and the conservation community nation-wide will once again need to wage a large and effective campaign to stop this effort to open it to oil and gas development.

However, there is a most unfortunate and ironic situation here.  The Obama Administration seems to be on the course once again of approving Shell Oil to do exploratory drilling 16 miles off-shore of Camden Bay on the coast of the Arctic Refuge.  NRDC has been fighting this drilling for four years now and stopped it once by winning a court case.  Last July, Secretary Salazar stopped it due to BP Gulf of Mexico spill.  Surely, if they had a blow-out anything like the BP Gulf of Mexico accident of earlier this year, the entirely shoreline and barrier islands of the Refuge would likely be oiled, threatening the densest on-shore polar bear denning area in the U.S.  Many other species of marine mammals such as ice seals, which polar bears rely on for food, would no doubt be killed as well as much of the off-shore food web.  Polar bears instinctly lick their fur when covered with oil and are then poisoned.  

This past week Secretary Salazar and the Obama Administration made a major announcement regarding off-shore drilling nation-wide.  While they announced that they would not open the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico over the next 7 years, to the considerable pleasure of conservationists, they also left the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean open.  In regard to Shell exploratory drilling off the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they said they were preparing an environmental assessment and would allow public comment without first releasing a new document on which to comment.  Further, there is no indication that they are requiring Shell to prepare a new oil spill response plan despite the BP Gulf spill and Shell’s verbal promises of adding components to their response capacity.  They appear to be rushing in order to meet Shell’s pleas of being given a permit in the very near future.

If this remains the situation, it is irresponsible and unacceptable.  The Arctic presents considerable constraints on any sort of industrial activity: the extensive night, the extremely harsh environment, including storms with high seas, the remoteness from any kind of suitable oil spill response capacity (closest Coast Guard Station is over 1,000 miles, oil spill response caches are thousands of miles away in the Lower 48), the unproven capacity to clean up oil in broken ice, and the coldness of the water, which degrades oil at a much slower rate than in areas further south.  All of this could result in the destruction of significant Arctic Refuge resources and values.  Clearly, if one cares about protecting the Arctic Refuge you cannot allow Shell’s off-shore drilling to go forward. 

The Arctic Refuge is the “crown jewel” of the National Wildlife Refuge System; is known the “Last Wilderness” and should remain that way.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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