Obama pushes for wilderness protections in ANWR, sparking GOP fury

By Scott Streater | 01/26/2015 07:15 AM EST

The Obama administration has finalized a sweeping new management plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska that proposes designating millions of acres as wilderness and off-limits to most oil and gas development, drawing strong opposition from Republican congressional leaders.

The Obama administration has finalized a sweeping new management plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska that proposes designating millions of acres as wilderness and off-limits to most oil and gas development, drawing strong opposition from Republican congressional leaders.

The Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday released a multivolume Comprehensive Conservation Plan and final environmental impact statement for the 19-million-acre refuge that includes a recommendation that Congress designate 12.2 million acres as new wilderness — the highest level of federal protection.

Currently, about 7 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is managed as wilderness. If approved, the new CCP that Fish and Wildlife has been working on for years would designate 98 percent of ANWR as wilderness, banning oil and gas development, new road construction and other activities.


That includes the refuge’s oil-rich coastal plain that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates could contain 10.4 billion barrels of oil. A draft CCP released in August 2011 found the 1.6-million-acre coastal plain is "highly suitable" for wilderness and "preliminarily recommended" it for wilderness designation (Greenwire, Aug. 15, 2011).

The plan, which will guide FWS management decisions at the refuge for the next 15 years, also recommends that four rivers within ANWR — the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut and Marsh Fork Canning — be added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Only Congress can approve wilderness and wild and scenic river designations.

The revised CCP and final EIS are set to be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register, kicking off a 30-day public review period after which a record of decision approving the plan will be signed. President Obama will then formally recommend to Congress the wilderness and wild and scenic river designations outlined in the plan.

"Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place," Obama said in a video released yesterday by the White House. "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 Alaskan Native communities. But it’s very fragile. And that’s why I’m very proud that my Department of Interior has put forward a comprehensive plan to make sure that we’re protecting the refuge and that we’re designating new areas, including coastal plains, for preservation.

"And I’m going to be calling on Congress to make sure that they take it one step further, designating it as a wilderness so that we can make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations," Obama said.

Alaska, GOP outrage

But any wilderness designation in ANWR will face an uphill battle in Congress, which will be asked to approve the largest single such designation since the Wilderness Act was approved more than 50 years ago.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) called the CCP "irrational," and said Obama "is more interested in appeasing some of the most extreme elements of his party rather than improving economic outcomes for our own citizens."

The final plan drew howls of protest from Alaska’s congressional delegation and from Gov. Bill Walker (I), who said closing off the wildlife refuge to drilling will hurt his state’s economy.

As a result of the plan, Walker vowed to "consider accelerating the options available to us to increase oil exploration and production on state-owned lands."

Alaska’s leaders have long complained that the federal government should open up more of the state’s vast public lands to drilling, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) called the final CCP and the wilderness recommendations little more than a "callously planned and politically motivated attack on Alaska by the Obama administration."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the new chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the GOP-controlled Senate, echoed Young’s comments about an attack on the state, adding that the Interior Department later this week is set to issue a new five-year plan withdrawing areas in the offshore Arctic from oil and gas leasing.

"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 in a statement. "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. 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 and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) will have the support of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"This action will not be tolerated in the new Congress," Inhofe said in a statement. "I will do everything in my power to support Sen. Sullivan and the work of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee as well as Chairman Lisa Murkowski in the fight to rein in the Obama Administration."

Protecting America’s ‘crown jewels’

But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the recommendation to designate ANWR as wilderness "reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife."

ANWR is home to the most diverse wildlife in the Arctic, including caribou, polar bears, gray wolves and muskoxen. More than 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species and 42 species of fish call the vast refuge home, according to Interior. Lagoons, beaches, salt marshes, tundra and forests make up the remote and undisturbed wild area that spans five distinct ecological regions.

"Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come," Jewell said in a statement.

The revised CCP and final EIS have been in the works since early 2010, and Fish and Wildlife received more than 612,000 public comments after it released the draft plan in August 2011.

FWS Director Dan Ashe said that currently, the "unique diversity of wildlife and habitat" at ANWR remains "wild and free."

But the refuge, he added, "faces growing challenges that require a thoughtful and comprehensive management strategy. The incorporation of large portions of the refuge into the National Wilderness Preservation System will ensure we protect this outstanding landscape and its inhabitants for our children and generations that follow."

Fish and Wildlife’s preferred alternative in the final EIS "addresses a variety of needs," the service said in a statement, and "strengthens the monitoring of fish, wildlife, habitat, and public uses on the Refuge to provide means to better respond to changing conditions in the surrounding landscape."

David Hayes, a former deputy Interior secretary who is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a distinguished visiting lecturer in law at Stanford University, applauded the final plan, saying the ANWR "is too special a place to drill."

"A wilderness designation will finally protect the ‘biological heart’ of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where caribou have their young after completing a 1,500 mile migration — the longest of any mammal on earth," Hayes said in an email. "Other oilfields are available."

The proposal has the support of Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

"President Obama understands that conservation is the right approach for our economy, for our heritage and for the future of our natural resources," Grijalva said in a statement. "I join Americans all over the country in commending him and thanking for protecting one of our nation’s truly greatest wild places. This is a day many of us have fought for and worked for, and it’s an important step on the road to the more balanced natural resources policy we so desperately need. I couldn’t be prouder to congratulate the administration on a job well done."