Senate may ditch Roosevelt’s conservation legacy for oil

Senate may ditch Roosevelt’s conservation legacy for oil
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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is America’s last great wildland and a world-renowned wildlife reserve. Why would we ever consider sacrificing this irreplaceable landscape to oil drilling?

Alaska Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiEx-Florida lawmaker leaves Republican Party Murkowski not worried about a Palin challenge Flake on Kavanaugh confirmation: To see GOP 'spiking the ball in the end zone' doesn't seem right MORE (R-Alaska) is intent on using the pending tax bill to authorize oil development on the Coastal Plain, the biological heart of the refuge that supports a full complement of Arctic wildlife, from polar bears, wolves and Arctic foxes, to snow geese and the diminutive singing vole.


The proposal would effectively turn over management of this incredible expanse to the Bureau of Land Management with direction to industrialize the area. Most immediately, it is a shock wave to wildlife protection nationwide.


The Arctic Refuge is the centerpiece of a vital conservation network of 566 national wildlife refuges managed by biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. President Theodore Roosevelt created the first refuge in 1903 with a promise to the American people that the federal government would do its part to preserve the wildlife and wildlands that define our national character.

More than a century later, the National Wildlife Refuge System has grown to more than 850 million acres of land and water habitat dedicated to wildlife conservation, with at least one refuge in every state and territory.

During my tenure as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I helped implement Roosevelt’s vision by working to enact the bipartisan National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. With overwhelming support from Congress, this foundational law finally secured the promise of a Refuge System where wildlife comes first for the benefit of all Americans.

In the era before the Improvement Act, special interests would regularly pressure refuge managers to allow activities that had no business occurring in wildlife refuges, such as drilling, mining, grazing and high-impact recreation like jet skiing and off-road vehicle use. These incompatible uses crippled the ability of individual refuges to fulfill their conservation purposes, subverting habitat preservation goals and threatening imperiled species.

By 1990, some national wildlife refuges were being treated more like amusement parks and stockyards than places to conserve habitat, protect wildlife and experience nature. 

The Refuge Improvement Act changed all that. It successfully insulated refuge management from political coercion, fundamentally strengthening the system with an overarching “wildlife first” mission and structure for science-based decision making. The Refuge Improvement Act finally ensured that this essential network of lands and waters is properly managed for wildlife.

Murkowski’s proposal harkens back to the bad old days for refuges, and even threatens to transfer management of the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain from the biologists at the nation’s leading wildlife conservation agency to the Bureau of Land Management.

The Coastal Plain provides vital nesting habitat for hundreds of species of migratory birds from all 50 states and six continents. It is the most important onshore denning habitat for threatened polar bears in the United States. It provides spawning streams for Dolly Varden and other valued fish species; and room to roam for caribou, wolves, muskoxen, Dall sheep, Arctic foxes and many other wildlife species.

Murkowski’s legislation strikes at the core of the 114-year-old federal wildlife refuge system. It actually amends the conservation purposes of the Arctic Refuge to include oil drilling. In doing so, it would deal a severe blow to national conservation efforts and threaten decades of progress to put wildlife first in our National Wildlife Refuge System.

If we allow Congress to make industrialization a purpose of our greatest wildlife refuge, can we successfully defend the conservation objectives of refuges in any state? Can the integrity of the National Wildlife Refuge System really be maintained?

Starting with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, our country must reject attempts to undermine our refuges and reaffirm our commitment to Roosevelt’s legacy and the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the Refuge System.

Jamie Rappaport Clark was the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001. She is currently the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.