The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will not survive without the engagement of everyday citizens. The threat to the refuge by politicians who want to allow drilling for oil has never been more urgent.
President Obama made history this week by permanently protecting 115 million acres of the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas drilling. This is great news, for Alaska native people, for wildlife and for the climate.
But right next door another American treasure is still at risk. In the last 15 years, I’ve visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge more than 18 times. It’s a place unlike any other. I’ve seen tens of thousands of caribou blanketing the landscape and hundreds of species of migratory birds, from all 50 states and six continents, swooping in over the heads of polar bears, wolves and muskoxen.
The fragile coastal plain of the refuge is one of the world’s most beautiful and unspoiled landscapes. The native Gwich’in people know it as “the sacred place where life begins” and rely on it to sustain their way of life. It is one of the last places where one can dip a cup into a river and drink clean, safe water.
Today, the refuge faces its most serious threat since its protection in 1960. Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, Alaska’s congressional delegation, led by Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has declared that they want to drill on public lands — lands that belong to all Americans — to prop up Alaska’s oil-dependent economy so Alaska politicians can continue to charge one of the lowest state and local tax rates in the country.
The attempt to turn the Arctic Refuge into an oil field is misguided and shortsighted.
Pro-drilling politicians and their friends in the oil industry look at the refuge and see dollar signs. They forget that this place belongs to all Americans. In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower established the refuge to protect its “unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.” Since then, the mountain ranges, tundra, coastal marine areas and boreal forests have been the property of you and me.
Even without the threat of oil rigs and pipelines, the refuge — like the rest of Alaska — is feeling the detrimental effects of a changing climate. With rising seas threatening coastal villages in Alaska, the idea of destroying this most unspoiled wild land to dig up even more fossil fuels borders on the perverse.
Writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.” This is true now more than ever. And the refuge has extraordinary defenders — like U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a tireless champion for the refuge as well as our wild public lands here in Washington.
For four decades, millions of Americans have also rallied for the refuge. Most recently, the conservation community has been energized by a coalition under the banner “We Are The Arctic,” comprised of a wide range of individuals and interests — veterans who see the refuge as a powerful symbol of the principles they fought for; human-rights groups whose lives have been similarly marginalized by corporate greed; members of the faith community who view it as part of God’s gift of creation; and leaders in the Gwich’in community.
These fierce defenders are united around the belief that we have an obligation to protect this place for future generations. Their hard work gives me hope that this amazing place will remain unspoiled long after Trump.
But the refuge will not survive without the engagement of everyday citizens, and the threat has never been more urgent. Everyone can make a difference by reading real news, writing public officials on behalf of preserving the refuge, signing petitions and supporting grass-roots groups.
As a businessman, I constantly make decisions to balance needs and resources, but I always keep my principles close and avoid risking the things that are central to who I am and to the people I care about. That’s what the refuge symbolizes for this country. It isn’t a commodity, or an oil tank. It is sacred land — the most special, most unspoiled example of what makes America great. If we lose sight of that, we won’t have just lost a wilderness. We’ll have lost our way.