The U.S. Senate is using its tax-cut bill to slink through a measure that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America’s most spectacular protected habitat.

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About the last thing one might expect to find in the tax-reform package moving through Congress is the fate of a wildlife refuge nearly 5,000 miles away.

That’s by design.

“I’ve been raising as much ire as I can, but I’m having trouble getting anyone aware that it’s even in there,” says Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

She’s talking about America’s largest protected habitat, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. The news that the U.S. Senate is moving toward opening up 1.5 million acres of it to oil drilling ought to be prompting a major public debate. But so far, it isn’t.

That’s because Republicans have hit on a backdoor strategy to push through a “drill, baby, drill” goal that has eluded industry, and many Alaskan politicians, ever since the otherworldly sweep of river canyons, mountains and tundra was protected in 1960 under President Dwight Eisenhower.

Knowing that turning a wildlife refuge into an oilfield isn’t supported by the public and so probably wouldn’t pass as a stand-alone bill, GOP senators from Alaska are attaching it to the massive tax-cut legislation heading for an almost certain vote next month.

What does drilling in a protected habitat have to do with cutting the corporate tax rate? Nothing, in the real world.

But in Congress-world, the two are related because Senate Republicans have said the federal receipts from the drilling will be used to help pay for the tax cuts. They make this connection though drilling is projected to only bring in $1 billion in federal revenue in 10 years — which, as Cantwell points out, is “just seven-hundredths of 1 percent of the $1.4 trillion tax-cut package.”

“It’s a way to jam through an environmental policy that can’t stand on its own,” Cantwell said.

Republicans, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, say they’re drilling only the coastal-plain portion of the refuge, not the whole thing. The legislation mandates two oil sales covering a minimum of 1,250 square miles. Republicans say newer drilling technologies will protect the famed caribou herds as well as the rest of the environment.

But to allow any drilling, the legislation changes the stated purpose of the coastal-plain portion of the refuge from wildlife protection, to petroleum production. No other wildlife refuge lists oil and gas production as a primary purpose (for the obvious reason that they’re wildlife refuges).

Former Republican and Democratic agency heads, including the directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the past three presidents (Obama, Bush and Clinton), blasted this switcheroo in a letter to the Senate.

“Oil development in this area is ethically, environmentally, and economically untenable,” they wrote. “Some places are just too special to drill.”

Cantwell had trouble summing up her five-day visit to the refuge about a decade ago.

“We came in on the bush plane, and seeing all those caribou massed there across the tundra, my breath stopped,” she said. “I remember thinking: How could I possibly describe this to people?”

The refuge overwhelmed me as well. I’ve been twice, once by plane and once on a bicycle. On the bike I slogged up the Dalton Highway, a 400-mile gravel-haul road made famous later by the reality-TV show “Ice Road Truckers.”

The road skirts the refuge as it crosses the Arctic Circle. I camped beneath roiling northern lights, with snorting caribou herds and trilling sandhill cranes as my neighbors. My main recollection is of enormous, incomprehensible space. It was so vast it made the supply trucks roaring back and forth to the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay seem inconsequential.

That’s the story of Alaska: So huge it feels unbreakable. Though we sure have tried (the wreck of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker comes to mind).

Of the wildlife refuge, Cantwell said: “I finally settled on calling it our Serengeti.”

When I covered Congress as a reporter, unrelated policies hung onto the big budget or tax bills were called “riders.” Because they would ride, parasitically and often without a direct vote, all the way to the president’s desk.

Shouldn’t the fate of something as epic as America’s Serengeti at least be opened to a debate and a vote?