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01/11/2013

A Decision to Be Thankful for in the Arctic

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The Arctic’s wildest country is some of its least well known, but that is about to change. After months of planning and evaluation, the Department of Interior has released its highly anticipated Final Environmental Impact Statement for its plan to manage the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in the western Arctic. While such a development may sound insignificant, the results are anything but. Under the administration’s plan, 11 million acres of the most important wildlife habitat in the western Arctic will be protected and put off-limits to oil and gas development.

The Reserve is the nation’s largest tract of public land at 23 million acres, and its grandeur cannot be overstated. It has been my great fortune to travel through this remarkable place and to experience it first-hand.  Two summers ago my wife and I watched three wolverines wrestle playfully in a snowfield on one day, and the next day we were stunned to witness 20,000 caribou fill a valley. This summer I spotted a bar-tailed godwit—a shorebird that flies non-stop from Alaska’s western Arctic to New Zealand (over 6,000 miles), and I also discovered a fossilized mammoth tusk that could be half a million years old. When I look back at these experiences I think of what it used to be as the mighty buffalos roamed the Great Plains, this place still exists.  The vastness of the western Arctic provides endless memories of awe. 

The Reserve is home to the calving grounds of America’s two largest caribou herds, the highest concentration of grizzly bears and wolverines in the Arctic, and to huge numbers of migratory birds which eventually make their way to backyards in all 50 states.  This area is one of our most significant and ecologically important pieces of public land—a fact recognized by the new management plan put forward by the Obama administration.

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The plan will protect core caribou calving areas for the Teshekpuk Lake and Western Arctic herds, both of which provide a vital subsistence resource for more than 40 communities in northern and western Alaska. Coastal area protections will benefit polar bears, walrus, beluga whales and other marine mammals, while protections for other areas will safeguard resting places for migrating birds and waterfowl that are so important to subsistence users, birdwatchers and sportsmen across the country.

More than 400,000 public comments supporting strong conservation protections were submitted during the plan drafting process. Alaska Native leaders, businesses, scientists and hundreds of thousands of Americans spoke up for a balanced plan. Twenty-seven resolutions, representing 90 villages in the region, calling for the protection of critical areas, wildlife and the subsistence way of life, were adopted.   

As a result, the administration’s new plan for managing this irreplaceable piece of the Arctic strikes an important balance between conservation of nationally important wildlife habitat, subsistence uses and energy development. For the first time there will be a plan in place to meet the unique dual mandate for use of the Reserve—preserving important habitats while also allowing for energy development. Though oil and gas drilling will still be allowed under the new plan in certain areas, there is a new (and much needed) emphasis on protection. 

Protecting this special place is more important now than ever, as the dangers posed by drilling are becoming clearer every day. In the last year, as Shell has struggled to commence their operations in the Arctic, they’ve had their ships catch fire, lose control, and – most recently – run aground on the coast of Alaska. Now, its clear that letting them continue to operate is nothing less than an invitation for disaster. The Arctic is both too pristine and too ecologically important to give Shell or any other company another chance to fail.

Thanks to the Administration’s record in the Arctic, there is at last recognition of the importance of the Reserve for wildlife and local communities, not just for oil and gas.  It’s just the latest in a line of positive decisions by the Obama Administration. In recent weeks, the Administration has made great progress in protecting land all across the country, expanding a marine sanctuary in Northern California and protecting wilderness and seashore at Drakes Estero.  With a series of new national monument proposals now before the President, we are hoping and fighting to see more of this progress in the coming year.  

President Obama's holiday gift to you? Protecting 11 million acres of America's Arctic landscape. Send him a "thank you" ecard! --> http://sc.org/ArticLandscape

--Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Campaign Director


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