Obama administration proposes making ANWR Coastal Plain wilderness

The Obama administration said it will propose managing more of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including its Coastal Plain, as wilderness. Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation immediately expressed their outrage at the Jan. 25 announcement as conservation and indigenous groups applauded it.

The US Department of the Interior’s Fish & Wildlife Service released a revised ANWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan that would be the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the Wilderness Act more than 50 years ago.

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower established ANWR in December 1960 as the 8.9 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Range. In 1980, Congress passed and President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which renamed it a wildlife refuge, enlarged it to 19 million acres, and designated 7 million acres of it as wilderness.

Management of its 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, which was set aside for possible future oil and gas development under ANILCA Section 1002, has been a recurring issue for decades. It represents about 8% of ANWR’s total acreage.

In a video the White House posted at YouTube on Jan. 25, US President Barack Obama called ANWR “an incredible place—pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and, for centuries, it has supported many Alaska Native communities.

“But it’s very fragile,” he said. “That’s why I’m very proud that my Department of the Interior has put together a comprehensive plan to make sure we’re protecting the refuge, and that we’re designating new areas, including coastal plains, for preservation.” Obama said he will ask the 114th Congress “to take it one step further” and designate all of ANWR as wilderness.

An unprecedented assault

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) and its congressional delegation immediately denounced Obama and Interior Sec. Sally Jewell for what the Alaskan officials considered an unprecedented assault on the state that would have long-lasting impacts on its economy and the nation’s energy security.

“Having just given the State of the State and State of the Budget addresses, it’s clear that our fiscal challenges in both the short and long term would benefit significantly from increased oil production,” Walker said. “This action by the federal government is a major setback toward reaching that goal.”

He said it would increase options to increase oil exploration on state lands. “This further underscores the need for Alaska to become a participant in the infrastructure development for the benefit of all North Slope participants and the residents of Alaska,” Walker said.

The state’s senior US Senator, Lisa Murkowski (R), who chairs both the full Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, said she expects Obama to withdraw offshore Arctic areas indefinitely when Jewell releases a new 5-year federal Outer Continental Shelf management plan later in the week.

This would effectively ban oil and gas activity in major portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, although its impact on areas where Shell, ConocoPhillips, and Statoil already have leases is not clear, Murkowski said. The administration also is weighing additional actions which would prevent new production in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), she added.

“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive,” Murkowski said. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them.”

‘We have an obligation’

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” Jewell said. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, [ANWR] is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

DOI said the new ANWR comprehensive management plan builds on years of engagement by FWS to revise the plan and complete an environmental impact statement for ANWR as required by law. The new plan will guide FWS’s management of the refuge for 15 years, it indicated.

Under its preferred alternative, 12.28 million acres—including the Coastal Plain—would be designated wilderness. FWS also recommends that 4 rivers—the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning—be incorporated into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

The revised plan and EIS address a variety of issues, including the protection of wildlife populations and their habitats, opportunities for fish- and wildlife-dependent recreation, subsistence needs of local inhabitants, and other public uses, according to DOI.

It said the plan also strengthens wildlife and habitat monitoring, as well as monitoring of public use of the refuge “so as to better respond to changing conditions on the landscape, particularly those associated with climate change.”

While FWS is not soliciting further public comment on the revised plan and EIS, it will be available for public review for 30 days, after which a record of decision will be published. At that point, the president will make the formal wilderness recommendation to Congress, DOI said.

Irrational and hypocritical

Congressional Republican energy leaders in addition to Murkowski quickly signaled that such a recommendation would not be warmly received. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (Utah) called the action both irrational and hypocritical.

“It is irrational to continue to bow to environmental extremists by taking away opportunities to give our nation energy independence while squashing the futures of local economies,” he explained. “It is hypocritical for the US to continue to encourage other countries to develop and export their own energy resources for our benefit while we lock up our own.”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (Okla.), meanwhile, said, “It’s one thing for the president to say he is for building a strong middle class, but his policies are working against his own rhetoric. Most alarmingly, the president once again ignored the law and trampled on state’s rights in order to solidify his legacy with his liberal base.”

He called DOI’s plan “federal government overreach at its finest” and said the new Congress would not tolerate it.

Robbie Diamond, president of Securing America’s Future Energy, also was critical. “Now is not the time to unilaterally take options off the table,” he said. “Achieving long-term energy security will require both parties to negotiate on issues such as domestic production and effective environmental standards while continuing to pursue technologies that can reduce our dependence on oil, diversify our transportation fuels, and protect us from a global oil market that remains beyond our control.”

Environmental and other organizations that oppose opening ANWR’s coastal plain to oil and gas leasing were elated. Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director said FWS’s recommendation to designate the area wilderness “erases the Reagan era pro-development position. This is a big deal. In the history of the Arctic Refuge, this is the closest that we have come to advancing wilderness for the Coastal Plain.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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