Advocates are urging President Obama to use his executive powers to increase protections in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In recent days the president has received appeals from members of Congress, environmental groups, businesses and religious organizations.
They want to see ANWR declared a national monument, which environmentalists say is a “stepping stone” to new wilderness designations in the refuge.
Proponents of these measures are hanging their exhortations on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the refuge’s birth.
On Dec. 6, 1960, Fred Seaton, Interior secretary under President Eisenhower, signed the public land order creating what originally was called the Arctic National Wildlife Range. In 1980, the unit was greatly expanded and renamed Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which today encompasses 19.3 million acres in Alaska’s northeast corner.
Twenty-five U.S. senators signed a Nov. 19 letter citing the anniversary and asking Obama to “grant the Arctic Refuge the strongest possible protections.”
All the senators are Democrats with the exception of the first signer, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent. Other signers included Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado and both senators from Washington state, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is truly one of America’s greatest wild places,” the letter says. “Its Coastal Plain hosts an amazing diversity of wildlife including polar bears, grizzly bears, muskoxen, wolverines, and over a hundred thousand caribou. This ‘biological heart’ of the Refuge is connected to the entire country, as well as to countries all around the world. Every year, birds that begin their lives on the Coastal Plain migrate to all 50 states and across six continents, before heading back to the Arctic, where the cycle of life begins again.”
Language in the letter mirrors that in a Nov. 18 letter environmental groups sent Obama.
Alaska’s senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich, immediately ripped the letter from their Senate colleagues.
“We’ve seen proposals to lock up ANWR before and they all share a total disregard for our nation’s energy security and economic responsibilities,” Murkowski said in a Nov. 19 press release. “When a small area in Alaska holds the promise of being able to produce a million barrels of oil a day, it’s irresponsible to suggest permanently barring access to that resource.”
Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“The vast majority of ANWR is already off limits to development,” Begich said. Lieberman and others are just trying to appease environmentalists, he said.
The focus, said Begich, should be on using directional drilling to tap ANWR with minimal surface disturbance and cutting U.S. dependence on foreign oil, not writing letters painting the refuge as “this last bastion of wilderness.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, has said it might recommend new wilderness designations for ANWR including the highly prospective coastal plain. Any new wilderness would need congressional approval.
But presidents can, and often do, declare national monuments, and this could doom ANWR drilling just as wilderness designation would.