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In Harm's Way - The Arctic Wild

Just a few weeks ago, a German ship left on a voyage seeking a sea route across the frozen top of the world -- something mariners have sought for 500 years. Because of global warming, the ship likely will succeed. Satellite images show that, for the first time in recorded history, there is an ice-free passage through the Arctic north of both Canada and Russia.

International merchants see the prospect of an Arctic shipping route as a shortcut to increased profits. But it actually is an alarming piece of the global push to exploit the once-pristine Far North. Finally unlocked by the warming effects of climate change, these waters and lands -- and the people and creatures whose survival depends on them -- are under assault by corporations and nations eager to turn them into industrial zones. And unfortunately, the United States is no exception.

In the next few weeks the Obama administration faces a series of crucial decisions that will determine whether America's Arctic will survive and thrive or be sacrificed to destructive and dangerous oil and gas drilling.

At stake are the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas -- also known as the Polar Bear Seas, home to 1 in 5 of the world's remaining polar bears -- as well as the rich fishing grounds of Bristol Bay. During the last eight years, the oil and gas industry and the Bush administration pushed hard to open these fragile waters to industrial-scale oil and gas exploration and drilling.

The rush to drill ignored the fact that the Arctic is perhaps the least-understood region on Earth, and that the most basic scientific research is lacking to guide decisions that could alter the Arctic ecosystem forever. An oil spill in icy waters, which is likely if drilling goes forward, would be a disaster we have no idea how to clean up

The Arctic is ground zero of the global warming crisis. Its seas, its wildlife and its people are already suffering the harmful effects of a warming world. Extracting more oil and gas will directly damage the Arctic ecosystem, while burning those fossil fuels will accelerate global warming -- without doing a thing to satisfy the nation’s need for clean energy. The Arctic's places, species and people are too precious to allow destructive oil and gas activity without a rigorous, objective scientific review of what may be lost.

Until September 21, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is asking for Americans' opinions on a Bush-era plan for selling Arctic oil and gas leases in the coming years. At the same time, he is deciding whether to permit Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2010 and whether to defend a Bush-era sale in the Chukchi Sea that offered the pristine area to oil companies without complying with environmental laws.

Sec. Salazar should throw out the Bush-era leasing plan and cancel the illegal Chukchi Sea leases.. He should call a "time-out" on all new oil and gas activity in the Arctic Ocean -- including pending drilling plans -- until he develops a science-based, comprehensive approach to managing the region that will ensure a legacy of a healthy, living Arctic for future generations."

No less than the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, the Arctic is a national treasure. Just as American leaders of previous generations had the vision and foresight to preserve national parks and wilderness areas, President Obama and Sec. Salazar can protect the Arctic as a legacy for future generations.

If they don't? Once it's gone, it's gone forever.