Saving America’s Last Great Wilderness | Commentary

Posted June 19, 2015 at 9:38am

When the Obama administration announced in January it would ask Congress to designate 12.28 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, millions of Americans rejoiced at the prospect of saving one of our last great wild landscapes.

Here is a final chance to protect a landscape of inestimable ecological and spiritual value. The coastal plain stretches north from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean and is the biological heart of this remote refuge in northeastern Alaska. Ever since oil was discovered to the west at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, oil company interests have pressured Washington’s political elites to allow drilling in the refuge, too.

Yet, after showing such concern for the Arctic Refuge, the Obama administration gave tentative approval for Royal Dutch Shell to drill again in the Arctic Ocean despite the company’s missteps and environmental violations during the 2012 drilling season. It is a guarantee of ecological carnage in that extreme environment, potentially more damaging than the 2010 fouling of the Gulf of Mexico by BP. A major spill in the Arctic Ocean could endanger the coastal life of the refuge, including the whales and seals upon which the Inupiat hunters depend for subsistence.

My heart has been devoted to the Arctic wilderness since 1956, when I was a field assistant on an expedition to the Brooks Range led by Olaus Murie, then president of The Wilderness Society. Based in the Sheenjek River Valley, we collected plants, listed bird species, analyzed the contents of grizzly and wolf droppings, and enjoyed what Olaus called the refuge’s biological richness and “precious intangible values.” The dedication of Olaus, his wife, Mardy, and others helped get the area protected in 1960, and it was enlarged by President Jimmy Carter to the current 30,000 square-mile Arctic Refuge in 1980.

In 2006, on the 50th anniversary of the Murie expedition, I returned to our old campsite in the refuge. To my delight, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had done a superb job of managing the region. The intricate web of life was intact. No buildings littered the land, and there were no roads. The only trails were those made by Dall sheep and caribou.

It is rare for a country to retain an intact landscape against which to measure changes elsewhere, a living laboratory in which to learn how best to restore and manage what has been squandered. In an age of extinction, the Arctic Refuge is a genetic storehouse of plant and animal species. More than 180 bird species have been identified in the refuge. It is the summer breeding ground for millions of migratory birds, most of which spend winters in other parts of the United States and South America.

More polar bears den in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain than any other on-shore area in the country. With global warming and the disappearance of the sea ice, the refuge remains one of the bears’ last havens in America. The Porcupine Caribou Herd — more than 120,000 strong — still surges across the landscape. The herd gathers in spring to calve on the coastal plain — the very place oil companies want to plunder and pollute. The Gwich’in Athabascan people, who depend on these caribou for subsistence, call the calving ground “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

For nearly a decade, residents of Alaska’s North Slope have expressed concern that air pollutants associated with oil and gas development are causing increased respiratory illnesses and other negative health effects. Destruction of the tundra vegetation through development releases a huge amount of stored carbon dioxide and methane, contributing to climate change.

Protection of the Arctic Refuge is also a moral issue, one of beauty, ethics and spiritual values, and of caring for our planet. Places such as the refuge must be preserved without compromise as witness to our obligation to other species and the well-being of our society.

Polls have indicated a majority of Americans support wilderness protection for the Arctic Refuge. Congress must pass this test of political will and live up to the country’s democratic ideal by giving wilderness status to the entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

George B. Schaller is a conservation biologist affiliated with Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society, both based in New York.