Congress is considering a wilderness bill for the 1.5 million acre coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Last week, two Summit County residents and Sierra Club members traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers about the wilderness bill. They described the trip in their own words for Summit Voice.
SUMMIT COUNTY — The 19-million Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be tucked away in a remote corner of Alaska, but it’s close to the heart for millions of Americans who cherish wilderness and find inspiration in knowing it exists — even if they never visit it.
And it’s even more important for the indigenous Gwich’in and Inupiaq people of the region. The Gwich’in are believed to have lived in the area and subsisted from the Porcupine caribou herd for 20,000 years, long before political maps divided Alaska and Canada.
The Inupiaq people, or “real people” of Alaska’s Arctic coasts, rely on subsistence hunting of moose, caribou, whales, walrus, seals, and ducks, as well as salmon and berries, for their food. Their traditional whaling practice dates back thousands of years and forms the center of their diet and culture.
For decades, a political and social battle has been raging over the area, specifically over oil extraction in a 1.5 million acre piece of the refuge deemed critical for the caribou herd. Wildlife biologists studying the area have documented that existing activities already have disturbed the migration patterns and habits of the caribou herds. additional impacts could radically disrupt the indigenous way of life.
Read more after the break …
The fight has mostly been conducted in the halls of Congress between energy company lobbyists and conservation groups facing off in a classic showdown between natural resource conservation and development. At issue is how much oil actually lies beneath the tundra and whether it can be extracted without significant impacts to the environment — including the indigenous people who call the region home.
According to environmental groups, it’s not worth disrupting the ecosystem and the cultural fabric of the indigenous people for what could be as little as a six month supply of oil. Conservationists charge that existing science proves the oil can’t be extracted without damaging wildlife and the native way of life.
On the other side, advocates for development say every drop of domestic oil is critically important in a world where the global supply may be reaching a peak. They claim the area could be developed with minimum impacts using the latest drilling technology.
With 2010 marking the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, conservation groups are making a major push to protect the area with wilderness legislation.
Sierra Club members and Summit County residents Rick Warren and Cassidy Brush were part of a citizen lobbying team helping that effort last week.
Silverthorne-area resident Rick Warren is chair of the Blue River Sierra Club Group, covering Summit, Grand and Eagle counties:
“Last week, I was in Washington D.C. with the Sierra Club to lobby representatives and senators for wilderness protection of the coastal plains of the Arctic Refuge in Alaska.
HR 39 is the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act. Dec, 6, 2010 will be the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Refuge and we hope by that time that the coastal plain of 1.5 million acres of pristine wildlife and land will be permanently protected as designated wilderness.
Under the Arctic Refuge Act, the area is currently protected from gas and oil exploration and drilling, but constantly comes under attack by the oil and gas lobby (seeking) to open it up for drilling. Already, 95 percent of the entire Arctic coastal region is open for exploration and drilling leases. This area (the coastal plain) represents the remaining 5 percent, and best estimates show that it contains only six months of oil reserves.
Together with three other Sierra Club members from Breckenridge, Iowa, and Illinois, plus four Alaskan natives from the Arctic Region and members of the Alaska Wilderness League, we contacted over 45 representatives and senators through their staff during the week.
The entire week was a wonderful experience and I was able to gain valuable knowledge of the Arctic Refuge issue.
Our Bill of Rights provides for individuals to “assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances”. Based on the number of normal people in the legislative hallways, it was obvious that many people go to Washington for this purpose.
Why do common people from the lower 48 states go to Washington, D.C. to get wilderness protection for the coastal plains of Arctic?
Because the gas and oil lobby is very large and powerful and they have the Alaska delegation on their side. If we don’t protect pristine wildlife areas (no matter where they are), we will have to try to describe to future generations, what a Wilderness is instead of being able to show them.”
Breckenridge resident and Sierra Club member Cassidy Brush:
“I was fortunate to have been invited by the Sierra Club to join a citizen’s lobby to garner support for HR 39, a bill that would designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. Drilling here would offer a paltry 6 months of oil. A foreign company, Shell Oil, has been awarded a lease under a residual loophole that is short-sighted at best.
There is a lot to lose here: Human rights for an indigenous American culture that has subsisted here for thousands of years; millions of acres of pristine wilderness; habitat for over a hundred species that tread precariously between life and death each day.
I came away from this experience with a profound feeling of living with paradox. Oil companies have had the coastal plain in their sights for years; here lies the controversy. It is counter-intuitive for our government to designate the polar bear as threatened, then offer oil-drilling leases in an area that provides some of their most critical denning habitat.
Is it not the oil that, when burned, emits the carbon dioxide that is destroying polar bear habitat?
Alternatives to oil are available, so why, with the political promise of building a green economy, aren’t we exploring wind and solar opportunities in the Arctic? Why would we ever allow leases here with this vision? In deep pockets lies the answer.
When are we going to change? It is time for us to wake up and draw the proverbial line in the sand, to say no, you can’t go here. I feel morally obligated to protect what some refer to as the last Serengeti. Once it is destroyed it can never be replaced. We are intelligent enough to become stewards of the land and to gain the respect, not disgust, of generations to follow.”
Learn more about the Sierra Club campaign to protect the integrity of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge here: http://www.sierraclub.org/arctic/
Visit the ANWR web site here: http://arctic.fws.gov/
Pro-drilling advocates are online here: http://www.anwr.org/
Some information on climate change impacts in ANWR
Refuge researchers, along with other agencies and scientists, are studying the impacts of global climate change within the Arctic Refuge. Some early findings from these ongoing studies include:
• Sea ice has thinned and decreased in extent. Shorefast ice tends to form later in fall. In September 2007, the extent and concentration of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was significantly less than ever previously recorded. Although total area of ice was slightly greater in September 2008, volume of ice continued to decline because of thinning.
• Coastal erosion within the Refuge east of Kaktovik averaged 1.6 feet per year between 1948 and 2001, based on repeat aerial photography. This is less than the rates of up to 8 feet per year measured by the same methods in areas east and west outside of the Refuge.
• Pregnant polar bears increasingly select land over sea ice for denning, possibly because of deteriorating sea-ice conditions.
• Polar bears have drowned in unusually large expanses of open water, and have been found dead in emaciated condition.
• Recent incidents of cannibalism among polar bears may be due to the nutritional stresses related to longer ice-free seasons.
• Muskox numbers have declined on the Refuge. A potential factor is mid-winter icing caused by freezing rain and thaws. This icing reduces access to food and also increases the amount of energy each animal uses. Other factors, for example predation, disease, or changes in plants, may also play a role in reduced numbers of muskoxen.
• Permanent vegetation plots and repeat-photograph studies so far do not show dramatic or consistent changes in Refuge vegetation. This is in contrast to areas of western Alaska, where shrub cover increases have been seen in photographs taken in 1999-2000 compared to photos taken in 1948-1950.
• On the Refuge coastal plain, permafrost warmed 3 to 5°F between 1985 and 2004. If predicted air temperature warming of 9°F occurs over the next century, some of the permafrost north of the Brooks Range will likely thaw.
• McCall Glacier and other alpine glaciers in the Refuge have receded dramatically over the past half-century, and the rate of ice melt has increased in recent years. If ice loss continues to accelerate according to current trends, all Brooks Range glaciers will disappear in 80 to 100 years.