One Step Closer to Wilderness Designation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Unprotected areas of the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are now one step closer to the wilderness designation they deserve.

Caribou graze on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Caribou graze on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

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In the game of chess that has been going on for decades over protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Obama administration has made another significant move. Following up on the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) released in January (see our previous blog here for more information), the Fish and Wildlife Service formally released their Record of Decision to Congress last Friday, urging lawmakers to protect another 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the iconic Coastal Plain, as wilderness.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure—one of the last remaining truly wild places—that deserves to be protected for all Americans. This untouched landscape is home to more than 250 animal species, such as polar bears and wolverines, as well as more than 180 species of birds that migrate there each year from all 50 states. The native Gwich’in people call the Coastal Plain—a biologically diverse swatch of land bordering the Beaufort Sea in Northeast Alaska—the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” as it is the birthing place of the porcupine caribou, their main source of food.

Even though the thousands of public comments received during the CCP public input process show that a majority of Americans support a wilderness designation for the Arctic refuge, since 1960 a battle has ensued over the protection of this magnificent place. In 1980, President Carter expanded what had before been called the Arctic National Wildlife Range, designating much of the area as wilderness. However, due to political pressures, the Coastal Plain was left out of this designation. Just a few years later, under pressure from President Reagan, the Department of the Interior at that time issued a CCP recommending drilling in the refuge. This recommendation ignored sound science that showed the refuge contains wilderness quality lands—like the Coastal Plain— that deserve to be protected, not threatened by the potential of oil spills destroying its invaluable landscape.

While Congress has made a few attempts to approve drilling the refuge in the years following the Reagan Administration CCP, none have succeeded. As these congressional threats have occurred, so too have efforts to protect the refuge. Every Congress since 1986 has introduced a bill that would designate more wilderness areas. The most recent iteration of this bill, H.R. 239, would protect the approximately 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain area with a wilderness designation.

The Obama administration and some members of Congress have made their moves to protect the refuge by promoting wilderness designations for the Coastal Plain and other currently unprotected areas. With your help, we can say “checkmate” to the oil and gas industry.

Call your representative today and urge him/her to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

There is only one place on Earth like it.

Serving on the Policy & Legislation team until 2019, Jenifer covered the clean water and safe drinking water dockets.