Obama’s wilderness recommendation for Alaska’s Coastal Plain is a huge deal

Thank you, Ron Meador, for your piece entitled “Despite the outcry from Alaskans, Obama’s move on refuge changes little,” which discusses the recent wilderness recommendation for the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is a valuable history lesson for anyone interested in background on an issue that has traditionally carried bipartisan support, and the tug-of-war between those seeking to protect its unique and pristine ecosystems and those who would see it sold off to outside interests that would plunder it for short-term profit.

I especially enjoyed Meador’s recounting of his trip to the Arctic Refuge, particularly his daily experiencing of the “deepest and most perfect quietude I have ever known, interrupted occasionally and strangely by a chatter of faint, distant voices.”

This recommendation, however, is far from signaling “no meaningful change” for the refuge. This is the first wilderness designation a president will have recommended to Congress for a refuge since 1974. It establishes administration support for wilderness protection for the Coastal Plain by reversing a Reagan-era position in favor of oil and gas development. As Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stated in a recent interview, the “1002 area has not been opened for oil and gas development because Congress didn’t want it to be opened. And this codifies the administration’s position.”

Preserving the Arctic Refuge is a matter of basic human rights for the Gwich’in people who depend on their ancestral lands. Birds flock here to nest from every state in the union and six continents. Facing diminished habitat, polar bears depend on the refuge to den and raise their young. The Arctic Refuge is wild, spectacular, and it belongs to all Americans.

This is a huge deal for the refuge, and a milestone toward achieving the strongest possible protection for the refuge and its Coastal Plain.

Lois Norrgard is part of the Alaska Wilderness League – Upper Midwest Region field staff.

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