Citing Native subsistence fishing traditions among other considerations, President Barack Obama has designated 12.3 million acres as wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, putting it off limits to oil and gas drilling in perpetuity.
"The Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge, one of the few remaining places in the country as pristine today as it was when the oldest Alaska Native communities first set eyes on it, is too precious to put at risk," the White House said in a statement on January 25.
“This far northern region is known as ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Begins’ to Alaska Native communities,” the White House statement said. “The Refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic—home not only to the Porcupine caribou, but to polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. Bird species from the Coastal Plain migrate to all 50 states of the country—meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape.”
It is the most sweeping protection proposal made by a president in 35 years, according to National Geographic, and creates the largest wilderness area in U.S. history.
“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a separate statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels, and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”
Obama in the video below outlines the reasons behind his decision to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The wilderness designation is “the highest level of protection available to public lands,” the Department of the Interior said. “If Congress chooses to act, it would be the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.”
No sooner had he done so, however, than two days later Obama also announced he would open the Atlantic Ocean to drilling and would sell more oil and gas leases in Arctic waters. The Center for Biological Diversity blasted the new drilling plan, citing the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico as well as a series of mishaps in 2012 that eventually caused Shell to suspend its deep-water drilling operations.
“The Deepwater Horizon disaster and Shell’s embarrassing 2012 Arctic drilling fiasco should have been wakeup calls to the Obama administration,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Instead the president appears to be sleepwalking his way right into the next big offshore-oil nightmare.”
Nonetheless, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on January 26 introduced an amendment to the Keystone XL bill that is before the Senate that seemed aimed at eliminating roadless protections on more than 17 million acres of public lands, the climate website Environment & Energy News reported.