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07/05/2012

Looking Out to Sea from the Arctic Refuge

Refuge polar bear
There is nothing like staring out to the Arctic Ocean while standing within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The vast and rugged peaks of the Brooks Range bow down to the Arctic Ocean in a long, rolling plain.  The wild landscape surrounds you and the blue ocean stretches over the horizon.  Today I look at the ocean and wonder, “What will happen now?”

The Arctic Refuge is our nation’s greatest wilderness icon.  For decades this amazing landscape has been preserved for its wildlife and the people of the Arctic, but it hasn’t been an easy journey and it’s far from over.  The Arctic Refuge has won serious battles against its biggest threat: Big Oil and its friends in Congress.  As Big Oil tries to open the Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is rewriting a Comprehensive Conservation Plan that could protect the coastal plain as wilderness.  Even as that happens, another threat is on the horizon that could have a lasting impact on the Refuge: Shell Oil’s plans for offshore drilling this summer. 

In a matter of weeks Shell plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea just 12 miles from the coast of the Arctic Refuge.  While we do all we can to protect the refuge lands, we must remember that the land and ocean’s health depend on each other.  Marine mammals, like walrus and polar bears, share the coast of the refuge with land-based animals, like caribou and wolves. 

The Arctic is alive and its beauty is unparalleled, but the landscape and wildlife are extremely fragile and slow to adapt.  An offshore oil catastrophe would coat the fragile coastline with oil sludge.  No oil company knows how to clean oil out of icy waters, and spilling is a part of drilling.  We saw the effects just two years ago in the Gulf of Mexico and the memories of oil-coated pelicans and dead dolphins are still fresh in my mind.  In the Arctic however, it would be endangered bowhead whales, threatened polar bears, threatened spectacled eiders and endangered short-tailed albatross covered in oil.  Putting wildlife in harm’s way—especially inside a “wildlife refuge”—is unthinkable.

Still, our government is allowing Shell to drill in the most extreme and fragile place on earth.  We know we are taking chances.  A simulation of an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea showed oil would reach the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain within the first week of the spill.  With all of these risks we must continue to fight for protecting the lands but also the waters. 

We will continue to stand in solidarity with the Inupiat people of America’s Arctic, not just to protect our public lands but also our waters.  This summer’s activities in the ocean weigh heavily on the Arctic Refuge, just as this winter’s decision by USFWS on the Refuge weighs heavily on the ocean.  We will continue to work with our Alaska Native partners to ensure that the Arctic is left healthy and intact for future generations.  This is the beginning of an ongoing effort to promote meaningful conservation measures for one healthy and whole Arctic. 

When our grandchildren stand on the coast of the Arctic Refuge and stare out to sea, we need to make sure they are surrounded by the awe-inspiring vastness that we have today.  

-- By Lindsey Hajduk

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