Sixty years ago, my grandfather, President Dwight Eisenhower, set aside the first 8.9 million acres of what today is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the remote northeast corner of Alaska. Twenty years later, President Jimmy Carter signed a law doubling the refuge’s size and strengthening its protections.
Now, despite the refuge’s bipartisan history, the departing Trump administration has scheduled a last-ditch oil and gas lease sale for Wednesday that could lead to drilling in one of the country’s last great wild places.
The sale targets about a million acres in the refuge’s 1.5 million acre coastal plain, which lies between the highest peaks of the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. Its rolling tundra, lagoons and barrier islands were part of the original protected area established by my grandfather, and for good reason: It is the biological core of the 19 million acre refuge.
His intent was to preserve the region’s “wildlife and wilderness values,” and his administration made clear from the outset that the refuge’s use for other purposes should be permitted only “in a manner that would not impair the intent.”
Our wildlife refuges are, by definition, public lands and waters set aside to conserve America’s wild animals and plants, and few areas in the United States are as wild or as biologically rich as the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Polar bears come onshore to build winter maternity dens and are spending more time on land as climate change melts sea ice. Millions of migratory birds nest and feed on the coastal plain’s tundra and along its rivers before departing to the lower 48 states and other destinations. Hundreds of thousands of caribou travel to the coastal plain each summer to calve as part of the longest land migration on the planet.
My grandfather was adamant that the range, including the coastal plain, be protected in its entirety. As his interior secretary, Fred Seaton, explained to Congress, “Looking ahead 50 years to the unfolding story of Alaska’s development, it is clear that the only economically feasible opportunity for maintaining a wilderness frontier large enough” to protect the area’s wildlife “lies in this northeastern Arctic region of the state.”
But even as it moved to establish the refuge, the Eisenhower administration recognized the need to balance resource development and conservation in the Arctic. Approximately 20 million acres of federal lands on the North Slope to the west — which included what would become the Prudhoe Bay oil fields — were given to the new state of Alaska in exchange for leaving the refuge undeveloped. This transfer paved the way for decades of oil and gas development on state lands across thousands of miles of the Arctic.
Today, even without whatever oil and gas lie beneath the refuge’s coastal plain, the United States is the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas. Many major banks have adopted policies against financing oil development in the refuge because of the risks involved, and there is no guarantee that Arctic refuge oil would not be shipped overseas. What is necessary is a focused and swift transition to clean energy. There are plenty of other places to acquire fossil fuels as that transition takes place.
If my grandfather were alive today, I’m confident he would be critical of the Trump administration’s effort to open the refuge to oil and gas development. In his farewell address in 1961, he warned against such shortsighted thinking: “As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.”
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains largely as Mr. Seaton described it in 1959: “One of the most magnificent wildlife and wilderness areas in North America,” providing “a wilderness experience not duplicated elsewhere.” We must hold on to the wild places we have left, particularly when spoiling them is so unnecessary.
I urge President-elect Joe Biden to take immediate action after his inauguration on Jan. 20 to halt the leasing process and suspend all oil activities and operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By doing so, he will restore in the American people the faith that their leaders will preserve the most magnificent wildlife and wilderness areas in North America for generations to come.
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