This is a potentially historic year for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This 20-million-acre landscape, which stretches from the Brooks Range north to the Arctic Ocean, has for decades been the subject of countless battles between the conservation community and proponents of oil drilling. In 1980, Congress designated nearly half of the Arctic Refuge as Wilderness. Left unprotected was a crucial strip of land known as the Coastal Plain, the 1.5-million-acre area where the refuge meets the Beaufort Sea. The State of Alaska and the oil industry have long sought to drill for the known oil deposits under the Coastal Plain, but needs Congress to pass a bill allowing access. At the same time, the conservation community has fought to pass bills through Congress designating the Coastal Plain as Wilderness. The effort to protect the Coastal Plain has never been as close to success as it is today, as a cascade of events over the past two years have moved the effort closer to the finish line.
In January 2015, President Obama formally recommended that Congress designate the Coastal Plain as Wilderness. Shortly thereafter, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) introduced legislation in the House that would secure those protections. In December 2015, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced similar legislation into the Senate. Last month, the House voted on Rep. Huffman’s bill, the first time Congress has ever voted on a Wilderness bill for the Arctic Refuge. (The bill did not pass). Meanwhile, oil prices are so low that oil companies are abandoning plans to drill existing leases in the Arctic Ocean.
As President Obama nears the end of his term, a broad group of stakeholders — including the outdoor industry — are calling on the President to do all he can to give the Coastal Plain the highest level of protection possible. The Conservation Alliance has funded several organizations over the past 15 years to support campaigns to protect the Arctic Refuge. We are now working with Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) to circulate a letter among our respective member companies, asking President Obama to protect the refuge. We expect at least 100 companies to sign that letter. OIA recently released a statement in support of protecting the Arctic Refuge, noting both its recreation and habitat values. In April, The Conservation Alliance, OIA, and Outdoor Alliance will gather in Washington, DC with dozens of representatives from our respective organizations. One goal of that trip is to explain to decision makers why protecting the Arctic Refuge is important.
Looking further ahead, The Conservation Alliance Breakfast on August 4th will feature a presentation by renowned photographer Florian Schulz, whose talk will have a strong Arctic theme. Now is the time to push for Arctic protection.