Arctic Refuge's 1002 area
Alaska's Brooks Range in light in the 1002 area of the Arctic Refuge (Photo: Danielle Brigida, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

Nine­ty-five per­cent of Alaska’s coast­lines are open to some form of oil and ener­gy explo­ration, sym­bol­ized by the mas­sive Prud­hoe Bay com­plex on the North Slope. On Wednes­day, Pres­i­dent Biden moved to pro­tect the remain­ing five per­cent, can­cel­ing oil leas­es on the Coastal Plain of the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge, rushed through dur­ing final hours of the Trump-Pence regime.

The Arc­tic Refuge is the largest sin­gle unit of pub­lic lands in the nation, span­ning more than 19 mil­lion acres. The 1.5 mil­lion acres of the Coastal Plain, left open to devel­op­ment by Con­gress, is its heart and soul, calv­ing ground for more than 100,000 ani­mals of the Por­cu­pine Cari­bou Herd.

A caribou in the Arctic Refuge
A cari­bou in the Arc­tic Refuge with moun­tains in the dis­tance (Pho­to: Danielle Brigi­da, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Biden moved to resolve a half-cen­tu­ry of con­flict in favor of con­ser­va­tion, say­ing: “As the cli­mate cri­sis warms the Arc­tic more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­tect this trea­sured region for the ages.”

“Can­cel­ing all remain­ing oil and gas leas­es issued under the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion in the Arc­tic Refuge and pro­tect­ing more than 13 mil­lion acres in the West Arc­tic will help pre­serve our Arc­tic lands and wildlife while hon­or­ing the cul­ture, his­to­ry and endur­ing wis­dom of Alas­ka Natives who have lived on these lands since time immortal.”

“Flat white noth­ing­ness” is how Gale Nor­ton, U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary under Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, described the area. The nation received a far dif­fer­ent impres­sion when a young Boe­ing employ­ee, Sub­hankar Baner­jee, pub­lished his pho­to-filled book “Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge: Sea­sons of Life and Land.”

Dur­ing June days of the mid­night sun, I raft­ed down the Can­ning Riv­er, which forms the west­ern bound­ary of the Refuge. The left side of the riv­er bore scars of oil explo­ration, rust­ing 50-gal­lon drums, aban­doned equip­ment, cat tracks etched per­ma­nent­ly in the per­mafrost. The far side rolled out a suc­ces­sion of won­der­ful expe­ri­ences, which oth­ers will savor thanks to Biden.

Cari­bou appeared out of and dis­ap­peared into the mists along the Beau­fort Sea coast­line. Two muskox­en lum­bered through our camp.

A snowy plover flapped and made noise, seek­ing to dis­tract an Arc­tic fox in search of her eggs. A gyr­fal­con, largest of the species, swooped down on our rafts, fear­ing that we were inter­fer­ing with her nest.

Upstream, descend­ing out of the Brooks Range, we trained a spot­ting scope on Dall Sheep. Long­time NPI sup­port­er Tom Cam­pi­on, cofounder of the Zumiez cloth­ing store chain, has devot­ed his life to pro­tect­ing the Refuge. He took Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell on a sub­se­quent trip, set her up with the spot­ting scope. Cantwell watched a bar­ren ground griz­zly at the base of a slope and spot­ted a wolver­ine high­er up. “Is this unusu­al?” she asked Campion.

The sen­a­tor would emerge as an intense defend­er of the Arc­tic Refuge (or “ANWR” as oil­men call it). When Alas­ka Sen­a­tor Ted Stevens tried to attach drilling approval to a defense spend­ing bill, Cantwell and Sen­a­tor Joe Lieber­man mount­ed a fil­i­buster. Stevens threw a nut-out on the Sen­ate floor, threat­en­ing to vis­it Wash­ing­ton and cam­paign against Cantwell.

He did and she won reelec­tion with fifty-eight per­cent of the vote.

Alas, a back­door pro­vi­sion was added to the 2017 Trump tax scam leg­is­la­tion, antic­i­pat­ing “rev­enue” from oil leas­ing sales in “ANWR.”

Cantwell tried to remove it, but lost on a 52–48 floor vote. The Trump regime set about greas­ing the process, mov­ing urgent­ly at the prospect vot­ers would evict it from office. A lease sale was held just before Joe Biden took office. Big oil com­pa­nies shied away from it, after some banks said they would not finance oil devel­op­ment in the Refuge. The sale yield­ed only 1 per­cent of pre­dict­ed revenue.

True to his cam­paign promise, Biden nixed the leases.

The Pres­i­dent has, how­ev­er, allowed Cono­co to go ahead with its Wil­low oil and gas devel­op­ment, west of Prud­hoe Bay, but has giv­en con­ser­va­tion­ists three epic Alas­ka vic­to­ries: It can­celed lease sales in the Arc­tic Refuge, refused to autho­rize a giant pro­posed open pit mine that would have put Bris­tol Bay’s salmon fish­ery in per­il, and has ruled no more road build­ing and log­ging of old growth trees in South­east Alaska’s Ton­gass Nation­al Forest.

The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion is “pre­serv­ing one of America’s great­est remain­ing pris­tine ecosys­tems for the ben­e­fit of future gen­er­a­tions, indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and our shared cli­mate,” a jubi­lant Cantwell said in a state­ment, adding: “Today’s deci­sion over­turns the Trump Administration’s last-minute attempt to cir­cum­vent envi­ron­men­tal laws and jam through drilling in the pris­tine Refuge.”

No two-legged Alaskans have more to cel­e­brate than res­i­dents of the Gwich’in com­mu­ni­ty of Arc­tic Vil­lage. The Por­cu­pine herd is their cen­tral food source, mate­r­i­al for cloth­ing and inte­gral to culture.

The Gwich’ins call the Coastal Plain calv­ing grounds Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, rough­ly trans­lat­ing to “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

“Can­cel­la­tion of these leas­es is a step to rec­ti­fy attempt­ed vio­lence against our peo­ple, the ani­mals and sacred land,” the Gwich’in Steer­ing Com­mit­tee said in a state­ment. The Gwich’ins are call­ing for per­ma­nent legal pro­tec­tion of the Coastal Plain, an action that the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute strong­ly supports.

The oil indus­try fuels Alas­ka state gov­ern­ment and has a stran­gle­hold over Last Fron­tier’s pol­i­tics. There are increas­ing num­bers of what the Anchor­age Times once called “self-admit­ted con­ser­va­tion­ists,” but the state’s politi­cians piled on Pres­i­dent Biden. “The war on Alas­ka is dev­as­tat­ing for not only Alas­ka but also the ener­gy secu­ri­ty of the nation,” grum­bled Sen­a­tor Dan Sul­li­van, R‑Alaska.

Sen. Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska, cheered approval of the Wil­low project, but took the indus­try line and defend­ed the lease sales. “Few­er jobs at home, more (oil) imports for Cal­i­for­nia and high­er prices for every­one,” Murkows­ki pre­dict­ed. “These deci­sions are ille­gal, reck­less, defy all com­mon sense and are the lat­est signs of an inco­her­ent ener­gy pol­i­cy from Pres­i­dent Biden.”

Nev­er mind that domes­tic ener­gy pro­duc­tion is at an all-time high. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mary Pel­to­la, D‑Alaska, took a more nuanced view, say­ing the admin­is­tra­tion was “capa­ble of lis­ten­ing to Alaskans when it approved the Wil­low Project.”

Now, in Petola’s view, it is ignor­ing Alaska’s capac­i­ty to pro­duce “crit­i­cal min­er­als we need for our clean ener­gy tran­si­tion” as well as the “domes­tic oil and gas to get us there.”

The words gave way to per­son­al mem­o­ries last night: of read­ing U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice William O. Dou­glas’ 1950’s Brooks Range trip to vis­it nat­u­ral­ist friends the Muries, of pilot and Camp Denali co-founder Celia Hunter suf­fer­ing a fatal heart attack at her desk, mobi­liz­ing oppo­si­tion to Bush’s drilling plans… and of Baner­jee hud­dling in a tent with tem­per­a­tures out­side at forty below zero.

Most of all, I remem­ber the great moun­tain amphithe­ater where the Marsh Fork joins the main Can­ning Riv­er. The sun nev­er set but moved around the sky, bathing one peak after anoth­er in gold­en light.

We stayed up to 4 AM, drink­ing Mak­ers Mark, watch­ing in awe, and thank­ing our lucky stars that the raft trip came just ahead of the mos­qui­to hatch.

As we final­ly head­ed to the tents, one par­ty mem­ber smiled and reflect­ed, “It’s going to be a Gwich’in day!”

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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One reply on “A reprieve for the Arctic Refuge: President Biden acts to protect lives and land alike”

  1. Beau­ti­ful cel­e­bra­tion and sum­ma­ry of the past decades on the Arc­tic Refuge. Writ­ten only by some­one who’s close­ly fol­lowed its jour­ney towards pro­tec­tion and savored a Mak­ers Mark there on the Solstice.

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