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02/26/2013

Making History in the Arctic: 11 Million Acres Protected

Spec eider

It's not every day that 11 million acres of pristine wildlife habitat are protected. In fact, during the 20 years that I have been working on public lands issues, Thursday marked the first time I've ever seen it. It has happened before, most notably in 1980 when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act –- but that was decades ago. So when these big victories happen, we should take a moment to celebrate.

I’m very thankful that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a final decision last week to protect some of the special places in the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska. Spanning over 22 million acres across the North Slope of Alaska, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is the largest single stretch of public lands in the nation. The reserve harbors rich wild lands and wildlife, including two caribou herds, millions of migratory birds, grizzly bears, threatened polar bears, walrus, wolves, and much more, making it home to a vast array of globally significant wildlife habitat.

That's why it's critically important that the areas with the highest conservation and habitat value in the reserve are kept off-limits to oil and gas development -– areas including Teshekpuk Lake, the Colville River, Utukok River Uplands, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay. And that's exactly what Secretary Salazar and the Obama administration have done. The first-ever comprehensive plan for the entire reserve was released last week, and it ensures these special places in the Western Arctic are protected from dirty and dangerous drilling.

Initially, Congress recognized the special wildlife values within the reserve when it passed ownership of this spectacular area to the Department of the Interior for management. Now, the Obama administration has been true to this vision by taking steps to ensure that the most important wildlife habitat is protected in America's western Arctic.

For the past 15 years, I have been part of the efforts to help protect the special areas in America'’s Arctic from the threat of oil and gas drilling. I have also had the opportunity to spend time on the ground in this amazing landscape and witness the wildlife spectacles for myself. I've seen 20,000 caribou fill a valley, watched a family of wolverine frolic in a snowfield, floated through a herd of muskox, and been awakened by the howls of seven wolves across a river. Last summer, while walking along a gravel bar, I came across a bar-tailed godwit poking around in the gravel. This bird spends its summer in the western Arctic of Alaska and, when it heads south, it makes the longest nonstop flight of any bird -- traveling 9,000 miles in one flight to the islands of the South Pacific. It's moments like these that you can experience only in one of our most pristine American landscapes. The Arctic is a magical place.

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That's why I know that the special places of the western Arctic deserve the protection they received -- and I am not alone. Approximately 400,000 Americans submitted public comments to the Obama administration supporting strong conservation and protection of special areas in the reserve. These comments came from sportsmen, business owners, conservationists, and folks just like me from across the country who feel that balancing oil and gas drilling and protection for key wildlife habitat can be achieved.

With such vocal and active support, it is clear that most Americans believe that protecting the special areas -- the areas most critical to wildlife -- is very important. And, after a year during which our nation experienced record floods, record droughts, record wildfires, and record storms fueled by climate disruption, protecting the Arctic is more important than ever.

The climate crisis has gone from being a threat to a dangerous reality, and these pristine Arctic lands are facing threats from not only dirty energy development but also the effects of climate change from the burning of fossil fuels. More dirty energy threats mean a double whammy for the Arctic, disrupting our landscapes with drills and dredging up more dirty fuel that will further melt the area when burned into the atmosphere.

The Obama administration's final plan for the reserve is a big step in the right direction toward permanently protecting critical wildlife habitat and subsistence needs in America's western Arctic and turning around the climate crisis. It means some of our most pristine places and unique wildlife will be protected for generations to come -- and it does a great deal to ensure the same is true of our planet. The people spoke and President Obama and Secretary Salazar listened. Future generations will surely benefit from his foresight.

-- Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Campaign Director

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