"This decision certainly gives big oil and gas plenty to be thankful for," said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska Regional Director of The Wilderness Society. "It fails to give real protection to one single acre, resource, or cultural value in the western Arctic. All we've asked for is a rational balance between oil and gas development and protecting wildlife and the environment, but apparently even that was beyond the capacity of this administration to understand."
"Conservation groups presented the administration with an alternative that would have allowed oil leasing, while putting a few of the most special areas off limits. What's shocking is that not only did the administration say 'no,' it refused even to consider this option," said Deirdre McDonnell of Earthjustice in Juneau.
BLM's deferral of leasing in some areas near Peard Bay and Kasegaluk Lagoon offers no real or permanent protection for these important wildlife and subsistence resources. The decision makes these areas available immediately for intrusive seismic surveys, as well as future oil and gas development. Because it will take at least ten years for pipelines and other oil industry infrastructure to reach the area, the deferrals have no real-world impact.
Today's decision weakens current environmental safeguards by allowing the Bureau of Land Management to modify or waive all of them on a case-by-case basis for economic reasons. It also changes existing strict lease requirements designed to protect wildlife and the environment, substituting vague guidelines, to be set and monitored by the industry itself.
"What makes this even worse is that BLM has failed to study the effects of oil activities on the environment as it promised to do. It even dismantled its Research and Monitoring Team," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
A report last year by the National Academy of Sciences found that after more than 25 years of drilling on Alaska's North Slope, industrial activity has damaged wildland values, clean air, and clean water over an area far exceeding the area of the oil drilling complex itself, and warned of possible future dangers to human health in the region. The NAS also reported that wildlife has suffered in a number of ways, including direct mortality and displacement, reduced reproductive rates of birds and caribou, and altered distributions of caribou and bowhead whales.
Conservation groups and the public, as well as experts from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, urged the administration to protect key areas, such as Dease Inlet, the southern Ikpikpuk River and adjacent wetlands, Peard Bay and Kasegaluk Lagoon from oil development. These areas contain globally important summer bird habitat for ducks and geese that migrate to almost every continent. Part of a vast network of coastal lagoons, deep water lakes, wet sedge grass meadows, and braided streams, the region harbors nearly one in four of the world's Pacific black brant population. Kasegaluk Lagoon provides critical habitat for the greatest aggregations of beluga whales and spotted seals in northern Alaska.
"This administration threw away the chance to protect some of the nation's last arctic gems," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "Instead of seizing
an opportunity to set aside some of the area's treasures for our children and theirs, they have again sacrificed our public land. Future generations will be the poorer for it."
Conservationists sent a letter this week to the Bureau of Land Management expressing strong concerns over the decision. For more information and to access the letter, visit http://www.arcticgems.org