As President Obama put it in his State of the Union address, he has “no more campaigns left to run.” Therefore it looks like he is using his remaining time in office to make as much of a difference as possible. Amongst his final efforts are plans to keep potential drilling and exploitation out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, widely considered one of the most spectacular and remote areas in the world.
The Department of the Interior is releasing a conservation plan for the refuge that would add protective measures to the area and designate core areas of the refuge – including its Coastal Plain – as wilderness, the highest level of protection available to public lands. If Congress chooses to act, it would be the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.
In a statement, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said: “Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife. 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.”
The new actions would protect over 12 million acres, while entering four rivers – the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning – into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Currently, over 7 million acres of the refuge are managed as wilderness, consistent with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. However, more than 60 percent of the refuge–including the Coastal Plain–does not carry that designation.
“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 19.8 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to the most diverse wildlife in the arctic, including caribou, polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. More than 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species and 42 species of fish call the vast refuge home. Lagoons, beaches, salt marshes, tundra and forests make up the remote and undisturbed wild area that spans five distinct ecological regions.
The refuge also holds special meaning to Alaska Natives, having sustained their lives and culture for thousands of years. The Gwich’in people refer to the Coastal Plain of the refuge as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” reflecting the area’s importance to their community, maintaining healthy herds of caribou and an abundance of other wildlife.