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Know the West

Wilderness for ANWR?


After decades of wrangling over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a draft federal plan for the first time includes a "preliminary recommendation" to protect the disputed Arctic coastal plain as a designated wilderness area.

Home to expansive caribou herds, musk ox, polar bears and grizzlies, the coastal plain holds an estimated 4 billion barrels of recoverable oil -- beneath the most biologically productive land in the largest national wildlife refuge in the country. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan also considers two other new wilderness areas in the Brooks Range and Porcupine Plateau areas of the refuge and suggests four rivers -- the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut and Marsh Fork Canning -- for the protective wild and scenic river designation. Congressional approval is already required for oil and gas development in the refuge; the wilderness stamp could make drilling even more difficult.

The plan comes a month after yet another BP pipeline leak in the Alaskan tundra near Prudhoe Bay, and three months after BP agreed to pay a $25 million penalty -- as well as $60 million in safety improvements -- to settle a federal probe of a 2006 North Slope oil spill.

Still in its early stages, the plan drew the predictable responses from Alaskan lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“Development in ANWR could create thousands of much-needed jobs in Alaska and across the country," said Sen. Mark Begich, D, in a press release.  "I’ll fight every step of the way any effort by federal bureaucrats to close off this enormous source of oil and gas by slapping it with more wilderness designation."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R, joined other opponents in claiming the proposed protected areas violate the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which created the refuge in 1980, by ignoring what's called the "no more" clause -- that is, no more protected federal land. When the sweeping legislation created numerous parks and preserves in Alaska, it also specified that no new federal conservation or recreation areas would be created -- or even officially reviewed -- without Congressional approval. The FWS maintains that considering wilderness designation within the refuge is simply part of its duty to responsibly manage the land.

Environmentalists praised the wilderness portion of the plan, claiming protection of the coastal plain would help wildlife cope with climate change. As Grist reports:

Environmental activists and the FWS agree that it marks a major turning point in an ongoing struggle in Alaska between conservationists and oil and gas developers.


"We're still a long way from getting to the end of the road, and we don't know where the road is going, but it's a step" toward more comprehensive protection for the area, FWS spokesperson Bruce Woods said.

The FWS plan doesn't yet identify a "preferred alternative" from the six management alternatives that range from maintaining the status quo to putting all three proposed wilderness areas and all four rivers into protected status. Even if the final plan recommends further wilderness designation for ANWR, like all such recommendations, it still must get through a future Congress.

The agency will take public comment through Nov. 15. A final plan is scheduled for the end of 2012. To add to the over 94,000 comments already submitted on the plan, send an email to [email protected].


Nathan Rice is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

Photo of caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service.