Kudos to President Obama for proposing to protect 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Kudos to President Obama for proposing to protect 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Kudos to President Obama for proposing to protect 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

In defining Alaska, polar bears outweigh oil 

By Nick Jans

I stood on the ice-rimmed edge of the Beaufort Sea, several miles from the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Kaktovik, in Alaska’s remote northeast corner. More than a dozen polar bears glowed in the slanted autumn sun. To the east stretched the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (known as ANWR); in the distance, peaks of the Brooks Range shimmered like sails on a blue-white sea of land.

As a longtime former resident of Arctic Alaska, I joined millions of Americans in celebrating President Obama’s proposal earlier this year to extend wilderness status to 12 million acres of the Arctic Refuge, including 1.5 million acres of its coastal plain. If approved by Congress, such protection would bar roads and other human development from the area; and if it does not pass, the president’s executive power would hold sway—at least until a future administration changes course. Given the current Congress’s curled lip toward Mr. Obama and conservation in general, it’s a slim hope, but I’ll take it.

For more than three decades, ANWR’s sweep of Arctic seacoast, wet tundra and rolling uplands, ultra-remote even by Alaska standards, have been the focus of bitter wrangles between pro-development forces and conservationists. The drill-it crowd touts the coastal plain as America’s best remaining onshore prospect for a world-class oil strike, and has labeled it an otherwise useless wasteland. Environmentalists maintain it’s a vital element of one of our great landscapes, a northern Serengeti worthy of enshrinement alongside Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Both sides may be guilty of straying into hyperbole, but the war over the Arctic Refuge has always been as much about symbol as substance.

To fully understand the historical context of the battle over ANWR’s existence, one needs to understand that the refuge is scorned by many Alaskans as a crowning insult in a massive, federal land grab dating to the 1970s, a gestapo-like seizure of state assets barring the way to life, liberty and the pursuit of fat paychecks. That sentiment is fanned by an oil-driven economy, now in production decline as the vast fields west of ANWR run dry and prices dwindle and most proven or suspected remaining reserves lie on federally restricted territory.

No surprise that virtually all of Alaska’s elected leaders over the past three decades have opposed ANWR’s protection, often with militant, over-the-top rhetoric. In a recent rant, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski called President Obama’s proposal a declaration of war on Alaska; Congressman Don Young labeled it “an attack on our people and our way of life.”

The truth is, beyond geologists’ extrapolations, there’s no proof that a Prudhoe-Bay-class oil pool, similar to northern Alaska’s other great finds, exists under ANWR’s coastal plain. Intensive exploration would be necessary to determine its scope, and such an undertaking has been banned in ANWR for decades under a series of temporary protections, dating back to President Jimmy Carter’s stop-gap invocation of the Antiquities Act in 1978, cemented into law by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

Likewise, it’s easy to imagine a casual observer, looking down over ANWR’s sprawling coastal plain might see only a featureless, frozen desert. But in summer, it provides vital habitat for the Porcupine caribou herd, Alaska’s second-largest at roughly 180,000 strong, and nesting grounds for uncounted throngs of migratory birds. The ground teems with lemmings, ground squirrels and ptarmigan, and predators from Arctic fox to grizzlies. And in winter’s cold silence, the coastal plain serves as Alaska’s single most important onshore habitat for female polar bears, who dig maternal dens where they give birth to their cubs.

Considering that caribou and polar bears, iconic creatures of the north, both notoriously intolerant of human development, are in decline—polar bears at such a pace that mainstream scientists have predicted they may vanish from Alaska within the next half century—the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge seems, indeed, a fitting name for one last, wild place that lies at the far northern edge of this great country. Without polar bears, what’s next? What best defines Alaska, not only to us, but the world: one last wild, protected space, or another guzzle of oil?

Sorry, Congressman Young. I’ll take polar bears any day.