On Jan. 25 we celebrated a significant step forward for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and we say thank you, President Obama, for doing the right thing by recommending Wilderness protection for the Coastal Plain in the Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). 

Since the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was passed in 1980, Congress has been fighting over what to do with the Coastal Plain. Obama has shown great leadership and commitment to the Refuge by recognizing it as a remarkable ecosystem that supports a full spectrum of sub-arctic, arctic and marine habitats. Since the days of the Reagan administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been saddled with an outdated but technically still in place administrative position that recommended the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge be opened to oil and gas exploration. The president’s Wilderness recommendation erases the pro-development Reagan-era stance, establishes the official U.S. administrative position as protecting the Coastal Plain as Wilderness, and is a critical step towards a congressional Wilderness designation. 

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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was first established by Republican President Eisenhower as the Arctic National Wildlife Range on December 6, 1960, because of its "unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values." In 1980, Congress (through ANILCA) designated much of the original 1960 Range area as Wilderness, doubled the original Range’s size to encompass wintering grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and added subsistence and other purposes as reasons for protecting the Refuge.  

The Arctic Refuge is a sweeping landscape, bursting with wildflowers and framed by the awe-inspiring Brooks Mountain Range; it is unparalleled throughout the world. It is wild, it is spectacular, and it belongs to all Americans. And yet, its very existence remains under constant threat from outside interests that would plunder it for short-term profit from oil development.  

The Arctic Refuge and its Coastal Plain is a true cradle of life. Preserving it is a matter of basic human rights for the Gwich’in people; they deserve to live off their ancestral lands as they have for thousands of years. The Porcupine Caribou Herd, upon which the Gwich’in subsist, return here year after year to give birth to their young. Likewise, birds flock to the Refuge to nest from every state in the union and six continents. The Refuge’s Coastal Plain is the only place in the world that is home to grizzly, black and polar bears. Polar bears, in particular, are facing diminishing habitat and depend on the Refuge’s Coastal Plain to den and raise their young. 

Like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and all the iconic places protected by those generations that have come before us, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must be here for future generations to enjoy. Our goal is and always has been to obtain the strongest possible protections for the Refuge and its Coastal Plain – this announcement will finally allow for on-the-ground management that is in line with preserving the area’s declared wilderness values. We hope Congress – after all these years – will follow President Obama’s lead and protect this sacred place once and for all by designating it as Wilderness. Historically, support for protecting the Arctic Refuge and its Coastal Plain has been consistently bipartisan, and we continue to encourage both parties to come together to protect our natural heritage. 

Shogan is executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.