Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats see Christmas goal slipping away Hickenlooper: Law preventing cannabis business banking 'a recipe for disaster' Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (D-Colo.) recently introduced legislation to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. It’s a move that has long-standing public support and would officially safeguard one of America’s last truly wild places.  

Stretching from boreal forests, across the towering mountains of the Brooks Range, down through sweeping tundra to coastal lagoons, the Arctic Refuge is home to a wealth of wildlife found nowhere else. It was designed specifically for wilderness purposes, but that hasn’t stopped the onslaught of dirty fuel development proposals. Following Shell Oil’s announcement that the company was abandoning plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean, Senator Murkowski (R-Alaska) has stepped up efforts to expedite oil and gas leasing in the Refuge.

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For decades the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been emblematic of the larger struggle between those who want to protect our nation's wild places and those who want to exploit them for short-term profit.  Increasingly, this struggle is linked to climate--with the Arctic as the symbol of a need for decisive action. President Obama recently visited Alaska and the Arctic, which he noted was the frontline of climate disruption, warming at twice the rate of the lower 48.  

His visit marked the first time a president has been to the Arctic Circle. Obama was also the first president to officially recommend Congress designate wilderness in the Refuge. His administration has declared climate to be a priority for the international Arctic Council. The president’s actions and those of Senator Bennet demonstrate an awakening to the importance of the Arctic and its place in the fight against climate disruption.  The science is clear that to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, and to avoid undermining the climate progress made so far, the dirty fuels of the Arctic must stay in the ground.  Opening the Arctic wilderness to drilling would not only mar the unique landscape, but would also negate many of the gains made to reduce climate pollution.

I’ve been fortunate to spend time in America’s Arctic. I’ve experienced first hand the harshness of one of the wildest spots left on the globe and also seen its fragility. I’ve watched thousands of caribou move across the tundra followed by wolves and grizzly bears. I’ve traveled with Alaska Native people, who have lived on these lands and waters for generations. I’ve listened to them describe their connection to the land and how it is changing--the loss of sea ice, changes in animal abundance and behavior, and the loss of important subsistence opportunities.

I’ve also been lucky enough to help others share these experiences, to show people the wonder of the Arctic Refuge for the first time. It’s a place that never fails to inspire. The Refuge has a wildness that resonates deeply with people, even those who will never get to visit the spectacular coastal plain. The Arctic Refuge deserves to be permanently protected. In fact, it must be protected for the sake of our climate and future generations. I applaud Bennet for recognizing the value of our Arctic wilderness and working for its preservation.

Ritzman is Alaska Program director for Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.