Protecting Alaskan Wilderness At What Cost?

by Abigail Wang

As President Obama finishes his last term, he’s rolling full steam ahead with his environmental and energy policies. In a move that left environmentalists, oil companies, and politicians upset, the president announced the Interior Department’s plans to prevent future oil and gas production in major parts of Alaska, but support development along the East Coast. The Obama administration wants to designate 12.28 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), including the coastal plains in Alaska, as “Wilderness”. Wilderness is the highest level of protection available for public lands; it prohibits mining, drilling, roads, vehicles, and the establishment of permanent structures in select areas. Over seven million acres are currently managed as wilderness because of the National Interests Lands Conservation Act of 1980, but more than 60% of the ANWR is not listed as such.

The plan addresses several points including the protection of wildlife populations and habitats, opportunities for fish and wildlife recreation, and support for the needs of local inhabitants. It emphasizes the importance of monitoring wildlife, habitats, and the public use of the land in order to respond to the effects global warming.

Alaskan Republicans are infuriated with Obama’s decision, claiming that if the plans were enacted, the state’s economy would greatly suffer. The state is already facing a $3.5 billion budget shortfall, and oil producers are likely to stop pursuing development if it’s no longer economical. Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, vowed to try everything possible to block Obama’s plan. Likewise, Governor Bill Walker stated he would increase the oil exploration and production on state-owned lands in order to make up for federal restrictions.

This isn’t the first time the president and Congress have fought over the Arctic. The first showdown occurred in 1995 when President Bill Clinton vetoed legislation passed by Congress that would have approved exploration and production on Alaska’s coastal plain. Fifteen years later Senators Murkowski and Ted Stevens tried to open a non-wilderness portion of the ANWR to development but supporting votes fell short.

While major environmental leaders like Patagonia and Wilderness Society hail the proposal as a good step in the long-term vision of the region’s future, local advocacy groups on the East Coast are less enthusiastic. The measures may protect the habitat of threatened polar bears, porcupine caribous, and musk oxen, but don’t offer the same for the creatures in the Atlantic.

The administration is planning to open a long stretch of the East Coast waters, including the southeast stretch of the Atlantic Seaboard, to oil and gas drilling. Environmentalists are concerned that opening Atlantic waters is going put the coasts of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia at risk for a disaster reminiscent of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast. The administration will have to compromise to see if it can appease all parties while pushing its agenda through.

Barrett, Ted. “Alaska Delegation Rips White House Decision.” CNN: 26 January 2015.

Berman, Dan and Ben Geman. “Obama Proposes to Declare ANWR Area as Wilderness.” The National Journal: 25 January 2015.

Bradner, Eric. “Obama’s Alaska Move Triggers Fight.” CNN: 26 January 2015.

Davenport, Coral. “Obama’s Plan: Allow Drilling in Atlantic, but Limit It in Arctic.” New York Times: 27 January 2015.

Eilperin, Juliet. “Obama Administration to Propose New Wilderness Protections in Arctic Refuge – Alaska Republicans Declare War.” The Washington Post: 26 January 2015.

“Obama Administration Moves to Protect Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” U.S. Department of the Interior: 25 January 2015.

Sanders, Sam. “Obama Proposes New Protections For Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” NPR: 25 January 2015.



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