The recent decision by President Obama to designate an additional 12 million acres of Alaska’s coastal plain as wilderness, while offering Congress the opportunity to affirm or modify his proposal, is a brilliant move — environmentally, historically and politically.
The president is acting in the great bipartisan tradition of American presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt and preserving a conservation legacy, not just for himself but for unborn generations of Americans.
The coastal range of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been perhaps the most contested legacy of the Alaska lands legislation that passed Congress and was signed into law by President Carter on Dec. 2, 1980, in the waning days of his administration.
For years, repeated efforts to open the fragile, environmentally critical area to oil exploration have been beaten back. With his recent action, Obama has both placed an appropriate level of conservation protection around the area and placed the responsibility on Congress to use the legislative process, if it can, to fine tune the details.
As the president said, “Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place — pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it’s very fragile.”
There are many, many places in the United States, indeed in the world, where oil and gas production can and should take place, but many of us recognized back in the late 1970s that the unique and unspoiled nature of the coastal plain simply wasn’t an appropriate place to drill.
Predictably, the boomers in Alaska’s congressional delegation linked arms with the oil and gas industry to immediately denounce the proposal. State officials cried that Alaska’s sovereignty was being insulted. Fox News offered its reliably hysterical assessment that the president was engineering a “massive land grab.” That’s ridiculous and, I have to say, I’ve heard it all before.
When Carter used his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect some of the remaining great unspoiled tracts of Alaska’s last frontier in the 1970s, he was also denounced. But he was able to force the “drill everywhere” crowd to reason, and negotiate a settlement to end years of conflict over the conservation of some of the most spectacular acres on the face of the earth.
But before they came to the table all those years ago, the shrill voices in Alaska made all the same arguments we’re hearing today. Common sense and a respect for future generations won out and allowed completion of the single largest conservation action in American history.
As Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten key air pollution standards | Despite risks to polar bears, Trump pushes ahead with oil exploration in Arctic | Biden to champion climate action in 2021 OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA proposes reapproving uses of pesticide linked to brain damage in children | Hispanic caucus unhappy with transition team treatment of Lujan Grisham | Schwarzenegger backs Nichols to lead EPA MORE has correctly pointed out, the portion of land that Obama proposes to manage as wilderness represents “one of our nation’s crown jewels, and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”
If you have any doubt that the area is unique just spread a map of the United States out on the dining room table and trace a finger around the full coastline of the country from northern Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, from the southern California coast to the coastal plain of Alaska.
When you get to Alaska move your finger past Nome, past Barrow, past Prudhoe Bay, and just before you reach the border between Alaska and Canada you come upon the area the president and millions of Americans value so highly.
It’s the one area among all the thousands of miles of coastline of the United States where the heavy industrial footprint of man has been absent — forever. Obama is right. It should stay that way. Future generations will thank him.
Andrus was secretary of the Interior in the Carter administration and was elected four times as governor of Idaho.