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Chuck Clusen’s Blog

Safeguarding America's Wildest Land

Chuck Clusen

Posted December 19, 2012 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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Visiting Alaska’s Western Arctic Reserve is a most unique experience which I have had the great pleasure to do several times. It is the largest public land unit in the nation, extremely diverse, the most remote, and, no doubt, with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the wildest.  It provides true wilderness experiences you’ll never forget. I’ve viewed the largest American caribou herd exceeding 400,000 animals, had a dozen musk oxen walk right into my campsite, saw a wolf chase a caribou right through camp, watched grizzly bears in all four directions at once for several days, and viewed thousands of waterfowl and shore birds that migrate to every continent—including Antarctica but not Europe. I’ve seen polar bears, walrus, bowhead whales, beluga whales and seals, and it’s not hard to.  Clearly, the Western Arctic Reserve is spectacular and a world class wildlife area.

Secretary Salazar took a big step today when he announced a conservation-focused decision that will safeguard the Western Arctic Reserve and its vital wildlife for future generations.  Covering an area the size of Indiana, it is perhaps Americas wildest and largest public land unit. This is critical for our country because it protects unique and important caribou calving grounds and nesting habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl and seabirds around Teshekpuk Lake; grizzly bear habitat in the DeLong Mountains; cliff-nesting raptors along the Colville River; marine mammals and nesting waterbirds concentrated in Peard Bay; and Kasegaluk Lagoon, home to polar bears, walrus and beluga whales.

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In choosing the Bureau of Land Management’s “B-2” alternative, Salazar brings certainty to how the Western Arctic Reserve (formally known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska) will be managed, and conservation is the winner.  It identifies areas where no oil and gas leasing will occur and areas where no non-subsistence infrastructure (oil and gas infrastructure) can occur.

Due to the outpouring of public support the Secretary was able to develop and adopt a plan that provides a strong foundation for protection of this wonderland. 

As big a win as this is for the American people and the Arctic environment, the Secretary’s decision leaves important work still to be done.  Here’s why:

*Portions of the proposed Utukok River Uplands Special Area and Teshekpuk Lake Special Area were not included with full protection.

*Major portions of the Ikpikpuk River and Lower Utukok Rivers were not included in the Special Areas.

*Although the significant parts of Kasegaluk Lagoon, Peard Bay, and the majority of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Areas are unavailable to leasing, some of these areas are still available to new non-subsistence infrastructure—this leaves the door open for these areas to be carved up with roads and pipelines.

*Roads between individual oil fields should be absolutely prohibited.

In the last year the USGS has done a new assessment of the oil potential of the Reserve finding it has less than one-tenth the potential of earlier assessments.  So whatever claims the oil companies and their allies make, the federal officials can allow for conservation of these critical habitats and for wildlife and wilderness to be maximally protected.

After all, we cannot possibly burn all the oil and gas left in the world without causing disastrous climate change that destroys support systems required by life.  So where better to leave oil and gas in the ground than in the Arctic, so rich, so fragile, so threatened already by global warming, and so precious a heritage of all Americans.

Despite the conservation work left to be done, the B-2 alternative is a major step toward achieving long-sought, responsible management of the Reserve. It’s consistent with the federal land management mandate for the Reserve provided by the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act (NPRPA) of 1976. In NPRPA, Congress explicitly recognized that the Reserve contains subsistence, recreational, fish, wildlife, historical, and scenic values that should be protected and directed the Secretary of the Interior to establish “conditions, restrictions, and prohibitions” to protect significant surface resources of the Reserve (42 USC § 6506a). NPRPA expressly cites the Teshekpuk Lake and Utukok River as examples of areas warranting “maximum protection” under the law (42 USC § 6504). These provisions of NPRPA were included partly due to the work I did as a lobbyist.

The B-2 alternative protects approximately 11 million acres of the highest-value habitats found in America’s Arctic by recognizing these habitats as ‘Special Areas’. The NPRPA also closed the entire Western Arctic Reserve to hard rock mining claims, land selections by the State of Alaska and Native Corporations and oil and gas leasing—although it did allow oil and gas exploration. Only through a sneaky amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill in 1980 by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) was the area opened to oil and gas leasing.

The Teshekpuk Lake Special Area is vital habitat for countless shorebirds, waterfowl, and seabirds, including the rare yellow-billed loon and the threatened spectacled eider. The lake is the centerpiece of the world's largest Arctic wetland and the heart of an international migration of waterfowl, important to subsistence users, birdwatchers, and waterfowl hunters alike.  Many of these species migrate to places across the nation from coast to coast, and some travel much farther, to Central or South America, Asia, Africa, or even Antarctica.

The B-2 alternative also will protect the Utukok River Uplands Special Area, core caribou calving, insect-relief, and migration areas of the state’s largest caribou herd – the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which provides a vital subsistence resource for more than 40 communities in northern and western Alaska. This area provides vital habitat for various predators including grizzly bear, wolves and wolverine.  The uplands serve as a wildlife highway – connecting interior Alaska to the Arctic Coastal Plain.

Going back to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that both the greater Teshekpuk Lake and Utukok areas be protected as national wildlife refuges.  Rep. Dingell (D-MI) sponsored bills to so protect them.  When the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) passed the House of Representatives, it provided for the entirety of the Western Area Reserve to be a national wildlife refuge.

Coastal area protections, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay Special Areas, would benefit polar bears, walrus, beluga whales, and other marine mammals.

Incorporating these protections for wildlife habitat into the Reserve’s B-2 alternative generated broad public support. At least 27 resolutions representing 90 villages were adopted in the region, calling for protection of critical areas, wildlife, and the subsistence way of life in the Reserve. Approximately 400,000 public comments from several sportsmen and conservation organizations were submitted supporting strong conservation protections.

It has been a very long battle to bring meaningful protection to the Western Arctic Reserve—over forty years. Secretary Salazar’s decision today substantially advances wildlife and wilderness conservation. With it, we move a step further to the ultimate goal: permanent protection for all the special areas of the Reserve.  This will take enormous effort given the opposition of the oil industry, State of Alaska and others dependent on oil development.

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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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