WASHINGTON, DC, January 26, 2015 (ENS) – “Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place – pristine, undisturbed,” said President Obama in a YouTube video announcing his administration’s plan to protect core areas of the refuge, including its Coastal Plain, as Wilderness, the highest level of protection available to public lands.

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Wilderness on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Feb. 2014 (Photo by Dusty Vaughn / US Fish and Wildlife Service)

“It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of manner of marine life, countless species birds and fish. And for centuries it supported many Alaska native communities. But it’s very fragile,” Obama said. “That’s why I’m very proud that my Department of the Interior has put forward a comprehensive plan to make sure that we’re protecting the refuge. And that we’re designating new areas, including coastal plains, for preservation.”

“I’m going to be calling on Congress to make sure that they take it one step further. Designating it as a wilderness so we can make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations,” said the President.

The Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service Sunday released a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that for the first time recommends additional protections. If Congress chooses to act, it would be the largest-ever Wilderness designation since Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964.

No roads, vehicles, permanent structures, or commercial enterprises such as logging or mining are permitted in a designated wilderness.

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Thousands of caribou migrate annually across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo by Bob Clarke)

The 19.8 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is inhabited by the most diverse wildlife in the Arctic – 37 land mammal species, including caribou, polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. There are eight marine mammal species, more than 200 species of birds and 42 species of fish in the vast refuge.

Lagoons, beaches, saltmarshes, tundra and forests make up the remote area that spans five distinct ecological regions.

Currently, over seven million acres of the refuge are managed as Wilderness, consistent with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Yet more than 60 percent of the refuge, including the Coastal Plain, does not carry that designation.

Based on the best available science and extensive public comment, the Service’s preferred alternative recommends 12.28 million acres, including the Coastal Plain, for formal designation as Wilderness.

The Service also recommends four rivers – the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning – for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

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The Dalton Highway through the Brooks Mountains beside the Atigun River, proposed as a Wild and Scenic River, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska (Photo by Peter Waterman)

Recommendations for Wilderness or Wild and Scenic River designations require approval of the Fish and Wildlife Service Director, Secretary of the Interior and the President. But only Congress has the authority to designate Wilderness areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Years of public engagement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went into revision of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan and a new Environmental Impact Statement for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as required by law. The plan will guide the Service’s management decisions for the next 15 years.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge preserves a unique diversity of wildlife and habitat in a corner of America that is still wild and free,” said Dan Ashe, who heads the Fish and Wildlife Service. “But it faces growing challenges that require a thoughtful and comprehensive management strategy. The incorporation of large portions of the refuge into the National Wilderness Preservation System will ensure we protect this outstanding landscape and its inhabitants for our children and generations that follow.”

Sunday on the White House blog John Podesta, counselor to the President, and Mike Boots, who leads the White House Council on Environmental Quality wrote both a tribute to the Refuge and a warning.

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Polar bears snuggling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service)

“This far northern region is known as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” to Alaska Native communities,” they wrote. “The Refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic – home not only to the Porcupine caribou, but to polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. Bird species from the Coastal Plain migrate to all 50 states of the country – meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape.”

Podesta and Boots warned that, “For more than three decades, some voices have clamored to drill for oil in the Coastal Plain – a move that could irreparably damage this ecological treasure and harm the Alaska Native communities who still depend on the caribou for subsistence.”

And Alaska Governor Bill Walker and the Alaska Congressional Delegation immediately pounced on the Obama Administration for this proposal, calling it “an unprecedented assault on Alaska that will have long-lasting effects on the state’s economy and the nation’s energy security.”

“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory.”

Calling the Obama Administration’s plan “outrageous,” “lawless” and a “war against Alaska families and the middle class,” the Alaska politicians, all Republicans, vowed to fight the administration’s Wilderness designation attempt.

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Alaska Governor Bill Walker delivered his State of the State address in front of a joint session of the 29th Alaska State Legislature in Juneau, Jan. 22, 2015. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

Governor Walker said he was was “outraged by the Obama administration’s actions at a time when the state is drawing down more than $10 million from savings every day due to low oil prices and declining production despite having more than 40 billion barrels of untapped resources, mostly in federal areas where oil and gas activity is blocked or restricted.”

“Having just given to Alaskans the State of the State and State of the Budget addresses, it’s clear that our fiscal challenges in both the short and long term would benefit significantly from increased oil production,” Governor Walker said. “This action by the federal government is a major setback toward reaching that goal.”

Governor Walker said he would accelerate oil and gas exploration and production on state-owned lands.

Wilderness status would permanently place off-limits the United States’ most promising onshore oil prospect and severely restrict access for subsistence hunters and other uses of the area, the Alaska politicians said.

“It is just one more example of President Obama thumbing his nose at the citizens of a sovereign state, and will put Alaska and America’s energy security in serious jeopardy,” said Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan.

Alaska Congressman Don Young raged, “This callously planned and politically motivated attack on Alaska by the Obama administration is akin to spitting in our faces and telling us it’s raining outside. As if on command from the most extreme environmentalist elements, this president and his team of D.C. bureaucrats believe they alone know what’s best for Alaska, but this brazen assault on our state and our people will do the complete opposite. This wholesale land grab, this widespread attack on our people and our way of life, is disgusting.”

But Podesta said today the Wilderness protection plan will not put an end to drilling. “We will continue to work to try to find balance so that there will be drilling – continued drilling in Alaska, and it’s done in conjunction with the Alaska state lands that are being leased for oil and gas exploration, continued exploration in the Arctic on the offshore side,” he said.

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U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska speaks with Canada’s Ambassador to the United States Gary Doer at the Embassy of Canada’s Arctic Gallery, April 2013 (Photo courtesy Embassy of Canada)

The Alaska lawmakers also worried that President Obama plans to indefinitely withdraw areas in the offshore Arctic from oil and gas leasing in a new five-year plan to be released later this week. They fear it would ban oil and gas development in large swaths of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas although areas of these seas are already under lease by Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil.

“This is [a] classic President Obama tactic,” Sullivan said. “Release a plan with no plan of passing the Congress. Meantime, take legally dubious action through executive orders to do what you know Congress won’t do.”

President Obama did sign an Executive Order regarding the Arctic on January 21.

With his Executive Order titled, “Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic,” Obama created the Arctic Executive Steering Committee “to provide guidance to executive departments and agencies and enhance coordination of federal Arctic policies across agencies and offices, and, where applicable, with State, local, and Alaska Native tribal governments and similar Alaska Native organizations, academic and research institutions, and the private and nonprofit sectors.”

“As the United States assumes the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, it is more important than ever that we have a coordinated national effort that takes advantage of our combined expertise and efforts in the Arctic region to promote our shared values and priorities,” Obama stated in the Executive Order.

United States will assume the chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in May 2015 for a two-year term, taking over from Canada, which now holds the chair.

Obama states in his Executive Order, “The Arctic has critical long-term strategic, ecological, cultural, and economic value, and it is imperative that we continue to protect our national interests in the region, which include: national defense; sovereign rights and responsibilities; maritime safety; energy and economic benefits; environmental stewardship; promotion of science and research; and preservation of the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea as reflected in international law.”

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The Hulahula River, proposed as a Wild and Scenic River, runs through the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Judith Slein)

“Over the past 60 years, climate change has caused the Alaskan Arctic to warm twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States, and will continue to transform the Arctic as its consequences grow more severe,” stated Obama, drawing on facts in a NOAA-led report issued in December, the Arctic Report Card 2014.

“Arctic warming is setting off changes that affect people and the environment in this fragile region, and has broader effects beyond the Arctic on global security, trade, and climate,” Craig McLean, acting assistant administrator for the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, said during a press conference in December 2014 at the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

“This year’s Arctic Report Card shows the importance of international collaboration on long-term observing programs that can provide vital information to inform decisions by citizens, policymakers and industry,” said McLean.

In his Executive Order, President Obama acknowledged the damage climate change is doing to the Arctic.

“Over the past several decades, higher atmospheric temperatures have led to a steady and dramatic reduction in Arctic sea ice, widespread glacier retreat, increasing coastal erosion, more acidic oceans, earlier spring snowmelt, thawing permafrost, drier landscapes, and more extensive insect outbreaks and wildfires, thus changing the accessibility and natural features of this remote region,” the President wrote.

“As a global leader,” Obama wrote, “the United States has the responsibility to strengthen international cooperation to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change, understand more fully and manage more effectively the adverse effects of climate change, protect life and property, develop and manage resources responsibly, enhance the quality of life of Arctic inhabitants, and serve as stewards for valuable and vulnerable ecosystems.”

“In doing so,” stated Obama, “we must rely on science-based decisionmaking and respect the value and utility of the traditional knowledge of Alaska Native peoples.”

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