President Obama Proposes Wilderness Protections for Oil-rich Alaskan Coast

   01.27.15

This week, President Barack Obama’s administration announced that the Department of the Interior has released a new conservation plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) that will designate more than 12 million acres as wilderness, including the oil-rich coastal plain. The announcement has set off a firestorm of debate, especially from some Alaskan lawmakers, who staunchly opposed the expansion of wilderness protections.

President Obama, speaking during a state visit in India, said he will make an official recommendation to Congress to designate core areas of the ANWR as wilderness. If Congress approves on the proposal, it will be the largest wilderness designation since the landmark Wilderness Act passed over a half century ago.

“Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place—pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it’s very fragile,” President Obama said in a video released this week.

The ANWR contains over 19 million acres of land in the Alaska North Slope region and is the largest National Wildlife Refuge in country. The refuge has a greater variety of plant and animal species than any other refuge in the Arctic Circle, and is home to a number of migratory birds, Dall sheep, wolves, bears, moose, and elk, among many other species. This diversity of wildlife has led many to consider it one of the last great bastions of wilderness in North America.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge preserves a unique diversity of wildlife and habitat in a corner of America that is still wild and free,” said US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in another press release. “But it faces growing challenges that require a thoughtful and comprehensive management strategy. The incorporation of large portions of the refuge into the National Wilderness Preservation System will ensure we protect this outstanding landscape and its inhabitants for our children and generations that follow.”

The fate of the ANWR has been a hot debate topic for the past several years due to its oil-rich coast. Conservationists have long sought to preserve the region from development due to worries that human encroachment could endanger the ecosystem and its resident wildlife, such as the famous Porcupine caribou herd, which has its calving grounds on the coastal plains.

Critics of the White House’s recent proposal say that by designating new wilderness areas, millions of acres of the continent’s richest oil and gas prospects will be blocked from development. They argue that the resources contained there are vital to Alaska’s—and America’s—future. A wilderness designation would not only place the coast off-limits for energy developers, but also restrict access for visitors, subsistence hunters, and other users. A number of Alaskan lawmakers scathingly called the proposal a violation of US law.

“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive,” US Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.”

Similarly, US Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and US Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) denounced the proposal.

“This callously planned and politically motivated attack on Alaska by the Obama administration is akin to spitting in our faces and telling us it’s raining outside. As if on command from the most extreme environmentalist elements, this president and his team of D.C. bureaucrats believe they alone know what’s best for Alaska, but this brazen assault on our state and our people will do the complete opposite,” Representative Young said, adding that the push for new wilderness protections is nothing more than a “land grab.”

Alaska Governor Bill Walker also voiced his disapproval of the Obama administration’s announcement and said that he will be accelerating options for oil exploration and production on state lands. Experts say that a Republican-controlled Congress is also likely to oppose the plan.

The White House responded by saying that the United States is already importing less oil than at any time in the previous 30 years, and is the number-one producer of oil and natural gas in the world. You can see a video on the issue narrated by President Obama below.

Where do you stand? What should be done with the ANWR? Let us know in the comments.

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