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Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is now up for sale

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Wake up, America. The Republican tax bill just gifted one of your most treasured national landscapes to oil companies. Against any measure of public interest, and in defiance of plausible economic reason, the new law mandates oil drilling in Alaska’s iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is a gift to Alaskan politicians and an unneeded bonus for the world’s richest corporations. It must be stopped.

The refuge, as many Alaskans reverentially call it, has been steadily targeted by Alaska politicians for decades. Its federal protection came in 1960, when Republican President Dwight Eisenhower formally recognized its national importance, preserving its “unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.”

{mosads}Eisenhower was informed by decades of research and advocacy by venerable American conservationists, including Olaus Murie, Bob Marshall, Justice William O. Douglas and the indefatigable Mardy Murie. Over decades, each poured passion, science and reason into ensuring future Americans — you and I — would inherit a slice of unspoiled arctic Alaska.


In 1980, Congress affirmed the refuge’s national significance, enlarging it and designating much of it federal wilderness. By then, most of Alaska’s arctic was open to drilling.

But the refuge is more than conservation legacy. Most famously it is the birthing ground for the massive Porcupine caribou herd, migrating 400 miles each spring to raise newborn calves on the area’s coastal plain, the very place Republicans just opened to drilling.

Additionally, it supports Alaska’s highest density of denning polar bears, exclusively mothers nursing newborns. It is also the locus for millions of migrating birds, arriving each spring from nearly every continent on Earth to raise the next generation of swans, terns, sandpipers, loons, eiders, and others. They disperse to backyards, beaches and wetlands across the planet. With grizzly bears, wolves, musk oxen and others present, too, many dub the refuge “America’s Serengeti.”

But it’s also critical human habitat. The Gwich’in people have lived there for millennia, calling it the sacred place where life begins. The Porcupine caribou are their nutritional and cultural staple, and they have long fought for their protection. The new tax law is a gut-punch to the Gwich’in and will stab at businesses bringing annual hikers, rafters, researchers, and others to the refuge.

Also consider climate change. Just days before Republicans passed their bill, scientists west of the Refuge were double-checking their instruments, doubting an extreme spike in temperatures. But the gauges were correct, recording yet more alarming warmth in a state facing melting permafrost, disappearing sea ice, acidifying oceans, and glaciers wasting away to rubble. America does not need more arctic drilling; it needs clean energy.

So if drilling the arctic refuge trashes American conservation history, endangers wildlife, violates the cultural identity of local people, and it then there is the notion of catastrophic climate change, why did Republicans do it?

A main goal was securing tax plan support from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who attached refuge drilling to the bill. Murkowski had already demonstrated her potential for mayhem by voting against dismantling health care, and Republicans were not about to mess with her.

For their part, Murkowski and other Alaska politicians have long threatened the refuge. One reason, as recently described by Philip Wright in Yale Environment 360, is that refuge oil could decrease operating costs and extend the life of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a gift to oil companies. It might also help the state’s oil-dependent economy.

But do we really need to destroy a national wildlife refuge so Alaska can go after more oil? Remember that oil has obviate the need for Alaska sales and income taxes, and every woman, child and man here still receives an annual oil dividend check, still commonly over a thousand dollars. Also remember U.S. oil production is soaring; we are not desperate for new sources.

Murkowski knows drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unpopular. That’s why she slipped it into tax law, with the bogus promise that it will send $1 billion to U.S. Treasury, helping cover tax cut costs. It’s a preposterous claim, first because no one knows how much oil lies beneath the refuge, and second because $1 billion is only a sliver of the $1.5 trillion tax cut.

And please don’t buy Murkowski’s utterly false claim that drilling would only impact 2,000 acres of the refuge. The figure imagines a line tightly drawn around every necessary road, pipeline, and oil rig. In reality, a toxic spider web of infrastructure would lace the refuge’s coastal plan, as it currently does nearby Prudhoe Bay, where oil spills are common.

What happens next is uncertain. Watch for Murkowski to press fast action from oil companies, to secure their presence and de facto ownership of refuge lands.

Concerned citizens should tune into the hard-working folks at Trustees for Alaska, the Alaska Wilderness League, The Wilderness Society and others who have fought for the arctic refuge for generations.

And in 2018 we must change the balance of power in Washington, where Republicans attacks on public lands are only beginning.

Tim Lydon works in federal lands management and is the author of Passage to Alaska, Two Months Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage.

Tags Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Lisa Murkowski

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