“Wilderness” On The Way For ANWR?

By Libby Casey

Twenty-five people turned out in Washington today to speak on the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The U-S Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comments as is prepares to update its comprehensive plan for the Refuge, which was last completed more than two decades ago. 

Fish and Wildlife says much has changed in the Refuge since then, including new federal laws, concerns about the impacts of climate change, and increased public use – including from the now-open Dalton Highway to the west.

Nearly all of today’s comments at the Interior Department headquarters centered on whether the Coastal Plain area should be designated “wilderness” – or opened for oil and gas development.  Only Congress can make those decisions… but Fish and Wildlife could forward a wilderness recommendation to the Interior Secretary, who could pass that along to the President, and he ultimately to Congress.

Alaskan Luci Beach, who leads the Gwich’in Steering Committee from Fairbanks, says that’s exactly what she’d like to see happen.  Beach was just in Washington last week celebrating the Refuge’s 50th anniversary – but says over the weekend she saw a sight that cemented her resolve.

I just returned from the Gulf of Mexico.  And… there are some places that need to be left off limits.  We call this place the sacred place where life begins.

Beach and many of the other twenty people who testified in favor of protecting the refuge cited last month’s oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which is still gushing oil and threatens the coastlines of numerous states.

But among the four people who testified in favor of opening the Coastal Plain to development, Carl Portman of Anchorage said the Gulf disaster should not end development everywhere.  Portman is Deputy Director of the Resource Development Council of Alaska, a non-profit made up of businesses, unions, and pro-development Native corporations and communities.

I ask if we don’t drill here in America, where will we drill.  In concluding, the 1002 area of ANWR should not only continue to be excluded from wilderness designation it should be open to responsible onshore development.  My state’s economy depends on it.  We can have oil and gas development in a small area of ANWR while maintaining the special values of the refuge.

But conservationists who testified said that 1002 (10-oh-2) area of the Refuge – the Coastal Plain – is not small in its biological diversity and in the many animals and birds it hosts.

David Jenkins, with the group Republicans for Environmental Protection, says its members want to protect all of the Refuge – and all of its habitats.

They see oil drilling in Prudhoe bay and other parts of Alaska’s north slope, they know vast expanses of Alaska’s arctic have also been made available for such development, and they come to the same conclusion that Eisenhower administration came to 50 years ago – that protecting the Arctic Refuge provides much needed balance.  Our members also recognize that the Arctic Refuge is unlike any other part of the American landscape.  An arctic and sub-arctic environment where wilderness can be experienced on an epic scale.  Mountains, rivers, plains, sea coasts, and abundant wildlife.

Fish and Wildlife will continue its scoping meetings in Alaska next week, with hearings in Anchorage, (May 11th), Fairbanks (May 13) and later this month in Kaktovik (May 20th).  It’s taking public comments until June 7th on the future Comprehensive Conservation Plan.


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