Obama formally proposes Alaska refuge protections

President Obama Friday formally sent to Congress his request that it establish additional protections from oil and natural gas drilling for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Obama announced his intention to seek wilderness status for nearly all of ANWR’s almost 20 million acres in January. It would extend the most protective federal land designation beyond the current 7.16 million acres of wilderness.

In a letter to Congress, Obama said the proposal address “a variety of needs, including preserving subsistence uses of local inhabitants, protecting fish and wildlife populations and their habitats, and ensuring opportunities for fish- and wildlife-dependent recreation and other public uses.”

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

The January announcement immediately generated great controversy among Republicans and Alaskan leaders who said blocking drilling would threaten economic opportunities for the state.

It rekindled a decades-old debate over the balance between environmental protections and energy in the massive area in Alaska’s northeast, a question Congress never completely answered.

While a wilderness designation would require legislative approval, the Fish and Wildlife Service immediately began to manage the area as wilderness pending Congress’s consideration of the issue.

Environmentalists cheered Obama’s decision and asked Congress to immediately act on a proposal that would indefinitely protect a pristine area and its ecosystem.

But leading Republicans were immediately dismissive and said the proposal would be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.