In a move many hope will stem Arctic oil drilling and protect some of the country's most pristine landscapes, the White House on Sunday announced a plan to designate large swaths of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness, the highest level of protection available to public lands.
The formal recommendation, which President Obama will present to Congress after a 30-day public review period, seeks protection for 12.8 million acres including the remote and scenic Coastal Plain, an area known by the Indigenous Gwich’in people as "Iizhik Gwat’san Gwandaii Goodlit" or "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."
The announcement follows a years-long campaign by local Indigenous and national environmental organizations to protect the pristine and unique territory. If Congress chooses to act, it would be the largest ever Wilderness designation.
The plan, which was announced as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the Refuge, was applauded by campaigners for reversing a Reagan administration position that favored oil and gas development in the region. Others noted the move was a "step in the right direction" for the Obama administration which has repeatedly pushed Arctic oil drilling as part of its 'all-of-the-above' energy policy.
In addition to providing crucial habitat for muskoxen, wolves, migratory birds, caribou, mother polar bears and their cubs, the Coastal Plain for has for centuries sustained the life and culture of the Gwich’in and Inupiat people.
"This is a human rights issue," said Sarah James, chair of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. "Oil development there would hurt the caribou and threaten the Gwich’in way of life."
"This is a human rights issue."
—Sarah James, Gwich’in Steering Committee
"This Wilderness recommendation has been a long time coming for the place where life begins for the Porcupine caribou herd and for many of America’s polar bears. It’s time to permanently protect the Arctic Refuge in all its richness and diversity before it’s destroyed for short-term profit," added Rebecca Noblin, senior attorney and Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
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"After the Obama administration's nearly disastrous decision to allow Shell to move forward with Arctic drilling two summers ago, it's good to see the president take a step in the right direction,” said Elijah Zarlin, senior campaign manager at CREDO. "If the President wants to stay true to his promise to protect our environment and climate, he needs to take areas off the table for fossil fuel development, not sell off pristine wilderness to the highest bidding dirty energy company."
During the public comment period for the CCP, the Service received more than 1 million comments in support of a Wilderness designation for the Arctic Refuge in opposition to oil and gas exploration and development there.
"Looks like Obama might be getting serious about keeping some fossil fuels in the ground," activist and founder of Peaceful Uprising Tim DeChristopher wrote on Twitter, adding the hashtag "#ActivismWorks."
The CCP will guide how the region is managed for the next 15 years. The Service also recommends four rivers—the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning—for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Only Congress has the authority to designate Wilderness areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers.
"Looks like Obama might be getting serious about keeping some fossil fuels in the ground."
"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 Service Director Dan Ashe. “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 White House released the below video along with the announcement.