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Time to Save the Western Arctic Reserve of Alaska

Chuck Clusen

Posted September 27, 2012

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Last month, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the Bureau of Land Management’s preferred alternative, the “B-2” alternative, for the first area-wide Integrated Activity Plan developed for Western Arctic Reserve, formally known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.  The Reserve is the nation’s largest tract of public land—the size of Indiana—covering nearly 23 million acres of America’s most wild and remote region.




The B-2 alternative is a major step toward achieving long-sought, responsible management of the Reserve and is 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 would protect 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 Senator 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 would also 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 also 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 preferred alternative has generated broad public support. At least 27 resolutions representing 90 villages have been 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 were submitted supporting strong conservation protections from several sportsmen and conservation organizations.

Despite the outpouring of public support for these conservation efforts, this plan does not include all the conservation lands it should.  Unfortunately, concessions were made to oil and gas interests. 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 not unavailable to new non-subsistence infrastructure—this leaves the door open 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.  Clearly, this should allow for conservation of these critical habitats and for wildlife and wilderness to be maximally protected.

It has been a very long battle to bring meaningful protection to the Western Arctic Reserve—over forty years. Despite its shortfalls, Secretary Salazar’s preferred alternative, “B-2”, is a serious plan that substantially advances wildlife and wilderness conservation. With Secretary Salazar’s plan, 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.


Clint Kincaid aided Chuck Clusen with this post.

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Tom BrannonSep 27 2012 07:31 PM

Comment removed. We welcome all views, but we don't do incivility here. – editor

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