Trans Alaska Pipeline in Winter with Sunset
Credit: iStock

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a crown jewel of America’s public lands. With nearly 20 million acres, it is our nation’s largest terrestrial protected area—equivalent to nearly ten Yellowstone National Parks—and the largest designated wilderness in the U.S.

It’s home to all three native species of bear—black, brown and polar. It’s a crucial breeding grounds for millions-upon-millions of birds that migrate to every state and six of the seven continents. And it’s a calving grounds for the nearly 200,000 animals in the porcupine caribou herd that has migrated there for millennia. Those who know this spectacular place understand it is the biological heart of the Refuge—what the native Alaskan Gwich’in people call the “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

But it’s not sacred enough to deter Congress and the Trump Administration from trying to open the Refuge’s coastal plain to energy development. Indeed, once again, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is under assault for the sake of only a few months’ worth of oil.

Which is ironic because we don’t need the oil. On June 21st, the price for a barrel of benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude had fallen to $42.34, down from $54.45 in February. At the time, CNBC reported that oil prices are “tumbling,” and the July 19 headline on oil proclaimed, “Hedge Funds Bleed As Oil Price Recovery Fails To Materialize.” Increases in shale-drilling efficiency have boosted U.S. crude oil production to more than 9.3 million barrels a day, up 850,000 barrels daily, since last September.

The Trump Administration apparently agrees that we don’t really need more oil. It has proposed rolling back vehicle fuel efficiency standards and selling off one-half of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney defended the sale of the reserves as “responsible” policy because we have a large “domestic surplus” of production.

If we open the Refuge to development, future generations will damn us for trading away this precious heritage for a fleeting, miniscule payday for industry. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has proclaimed himself to be a “Theodore Roosevelt Conservationist.” But in addition to his assault on the Arctic Refuge, he, the president, and leaders in Congress want to reopen the greater sage grouse conservation plans, review National Monument designations that go back three administrations, zero out Land and Water Conservation Act funding for land acquisition, and much else that will despoil and degrade our great legacy of public lands.

What about this sounds like TR, whose legacy was framed by protecting great places? He earned the title “Wilderness Warrior” through bold and politically courageous conservation, like establishing the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge at Florida’s Pelican Island. TR created a bi-partisan legacy. The three presidents we served—Nixon, Ford and Obama—expanded public land protections, including the Arctic Refuge.

The proponents of development in the Refuge say they just want a small piece. They say conservationists, like us, need to be more balanced and reasonable.

But we already compromised. When the Refuge was created, the State of Alaska selected lands in and around Prudhoe Bay where oil and gas could be—and has since been—extracted. Also, areas such as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska are likewise open to development and, as a new study from The Wilderness Society shows, have enough untapped oil to keep the trans-Alaska oil pipeline operating for many decades. “There is no justification,” the study concludes, “to pursue seismic activities or drilling projects on controversial, ecologically-important and federally protected Arctic regions including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, off-limits portions of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and the Arctic Ocean.”

We need to draw a line. We need places on this earth where nature still reigns supreme, where the heart of nature still beats pure. This is such a place. We need U.S. Senators to stand up to special interests, and protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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Daniel M. Ashe, President and CEO of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, served as Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service from 2011 to 2017. Nathaniel P. Reed, an environmental advisor to seven Florida governors from both parties, served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.