White House Proposes Protecting More Than 12 Million Acres Of Alaska’s Arctic Refuge

CREDIT: AP Photo/Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A section of land inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, proposed to be used for oil exploration by the Bush administration, is shown in this undated photo.

President Obama is proposing to protect more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), protection that would prohibit oil and gas drilling, the White House announced Sunday.

In plans unveiled by the Interior Department, the Obama administration is recommending that 12.28 million acres of ANWR be designated as “wilderness,” the highest level of protection that the government can award to a wild place. That area includes ANWR’s Coastal Plain, which according to the Energy Information Administration likely houses 5.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also recommending that four rivers within ANWR’s boundaries — the Atigun, Kongakut, Marsh Fork Canning, and Hulahula Rivers — be included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, a designation held by just 1/4 of 1 percent of the U.S.’s rivers.

“Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place,” President Obama said in a video on the Interior Department’s plan. “Pristine, undisturbed; it supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it’s very fragile.”

However, as Obama notes in the video, Congress has a role to play in the plan too. Obama said in the video that he’s “calling on Congress to make sure that they take it one step further, designating [ANWR] as a wilderness, so that we can make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations.” The Washington Post reports that once the federal government recommends that a place be designated a wilderness area, that place is given the highest level of protection until Congress or a future administration says otherwise. So though this announcement does grant ANWR some protection, only Congress has the ability to create a permanent wilderness area.

And already, some members of Congress are lambasting the proposal.

“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said in a statement. “I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.”

Murkowski said in the statement that her state would “defeat [the White House’s] lawless attempt to designate ANWR as a wilderness, as well as their ultimate goal of making Alaska one big national park.” The senator is is the new head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and told the Alaska Dispatch News in November that trying to open up ANWR to oil drilling was a major priority for her new role. She told the Washington Post that she would retaliate against Obama’s proposal, but didn’t say how.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) joined Murkowski in criticizing the White House’s move, and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said the proposal amounted to the White House “taking our economy away from us.”

But others praised the White House’s decision. The management of ANWR — whether to drill there or whether to designate it as off-limits to energy development — has been a topic of discussion in Congress for 35 years. And if the White House’s proposal does get upheld by Congress, ANWR’s designation as a wilderness area would be the largest such designation since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Right now, more than 7 million acres of ANWR is designated as wilderness, leaving more than 60 percent of the refuge without wilderness protection.

“This is the best news for the refuge since President Eisenhower established it in 1960 as the Arctic National Wildlife Range,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “It’s a national treasure worthy of the highest protection available for our public lands.”