Tax reform plan is also wrong for the environment
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Count polar bears and caribou among the long list of those opposed to the Republican tax reform plan.

In addition to eliminating tax cuts that benefit middle-class Americans and exploding the deficit by $1.5 trillion, the GOP tax bill, H.R. 1, which passed the House on Nov. 16, also undermines one of our nation’s most successful, bipartisan conservation efforts.

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Nearly four decades ago, my late husband Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) worked with then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). To this day that law remains one of America’s most significant conservation bills, balancing permanent environmental protections with responsible economic development, energy production, and recreation activities in Alaska.

ANILCA also included an expansion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of our nation’s last remaining truly wild places and a crown jewel of our nation's public lands. The Arctic Refuge is home to caribou herds, polar bears, muskox, gray wolves, and numerous other nationally significant animal and plant species unique to the region. It also supports subsistence activities for Native Alaskan communities and is open to recreation such as hunting, hiking, fishing and wildlife viewing, all of which contribute to Alaska’s $9.5 billion outdoor recreation economy.

The GOP’s tax reform plan changes all that. Their tax bill calls for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to pay for tax cuts for the top earners in this country. The Senate version of the bill, which will be considered in the coming weeks, includes similar language.

Specifically, H.R. 1 opens up the coastal section of the Arctic Refuge to fossil fuel development, a region that is critical to the biological diversity of the entire refuge and called “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” by the native Gwich’in people.

Earlier this month, a group of scientists wrote to members of Congress opposing the expanded drilling, citing that “three-fourths of the refuge coastal plain is designated as critical habitat for polar bears,” and “New development on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, one of the nation’s and planet’s premier protected areas, will only contribute to these harmful impacts on wildlife.”

Adding insult to injury, consistently low oil prices make it doubtful that drilling in this national wildlife refuge would even bring in the revenues that Republicans expect. They are gambling with long-valued conservation efforts, putting the Arctic Refuge’s wildlife, air, and water at risk of permanent degradation.

Our nation’s public lands protect some of the natural and historic places that have shaped and defined who we are as a people, and a country, and would not be protected without support from the federal government.

As stewards of these lands, we must work to find a balance between compelling, yet sometimes competing interests, and make sure that the federal government is a good neighbor to local communities.

There are some places in our country where the best use of public lands is conservation, and one of those places is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Instead of opening up the coastal plain of the Refuge to drilling, we should be designating the site as Wilderness, guaranteeing that this special area will remain as such for future generations of Americans and for the native people who depend on it to sustain their way of life.

Sen. Paul Tsongas and his colleagues enacted ANILCA forty years ago, but the vision behind that momentous legislation is equally critical and applicable today. Neither Paul nor Sen. Stevens got everything he wanted in that law, as my many dinner table conversations with Paul at the time made clear. But they both understood that it represented a unique opportunity to balance the economic needs of Alaska with long-term conservation on behalf of the American people.

What Paul said then still holds true today: “Nature made the wilderness and wildlife in Alaska majestic during hundreds of thousands of years. Man is challenged merely to respect and preserve the natural majesty.”

Tsongas represents Massachusetts' 3rd District and is a senior member of the Natural Resources Committee.