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By Allen E. Smith, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

President Barack Obama showed great leadership in announcing his intent to protect our nation’s vanishing wild, natural capital by recommending that Congress protect 12.28 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. Congress has been busy talking about the decision during this month’s budget hearings, and we likely haven’t heard the end of it.

Alaskan politicians were quick to attack Obama, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the updated refuge plan and forward-thinking proposal to protect our most valuable wilderness under the Wilderness Act.

“They’ve decided that today was the day that they were going to declare war on Alaska,” Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said when the plan was released. “Well, we are ready to engage.”

Murkowski routinely denounces protective actions on federal lands in Alaska.

Alaska’s freshman senator, Dan Sullivan, accused the president of “declaring war on Alaska’s families.” As a Marine, Sullivan should be ashamed of resorting to such bellicose rhetoric. As a former Marine myself, I am deeply offended by such disrespect.

Murkowski’s and Sullivan’s cries of “no more wilderness” are firmly rooted in the erroneous belief that Alaska belongs to the state to plunder as it wishes. This illusion of the “owner state” is based on the false theory that statehood was a “compact” giving Alaska sovereign control of all land within its borders.

At statehood, Congress granted Alaska 104 million acres to benefit the sparsely settled state. That provided the state enormous wealth and fostered its dependence on oil revenue.

Alaska abolished its income tax and bestowed generous entitlements on its citizens. Alaskans pay no state sales or income tax. At least 85 percent of the state’s budget is funded by oil revenue. The Alaska Permanent Fund balance is more than $52 billion and pays annual dividends to every resident man, woman and child. Last year’s dividend was $1,884. Dividend disbursements since 1982 total $21 billion. Oil also funds educational and cultural institutions.

Alaska faces a $3.5 billion budget shortfall because of declining North Slope oil production and a recent drop in oil prices. Alaska has no right to continue its entitlements by balancing its checkbook at the expense of the Arctic Refuge, which belongs to all Americans.

The revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan would afford the 19.6 million-acre Arctic Refuge the highest level of protection available for our public lands. The plan fulfills National Wildlife Refuge System and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act requirements to update management plans, review refuge lands for wilderness suitability, and forward wilderness recommendations to Congress. Resulting from years of effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assess Arctic Refuge management needs and wilderness values, it received nearly a million public comments from Americans supporting designated wilderness in the refuge.

Pro-drilling arguments dismiss the fact that the 1.4 million-acre coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge that pumps life into a vast ecosystem of Alaska and Canada recognized for its extraordinary diversity of wilderness and wildlife.

Proposing to protect the wilderness and wildlife values of the Arctic Refuge is a visionary act of conservation. Future generations will thank the president; we should thank him now.

The Arctic Refuge is the cornerstone of that vast ecosystem stretching hundreds of miles from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline to the Mackenzie River in Canada, and from the Yukon River to the Beaufort Sea. This wilderness ecosystem is home to remote villages of the Athabascan Gwich’in Nation, and the Porcupine Caribou Herd that sustains their culture and subsistence way of life.

To the Gwich’in, protecting the Arctic Refuge is a matter of human rights. In their language, they call the coastal plain “the sacred place where life begins” because it is where caribou give birth to their calves, maintaining the herd that sustains Gwich’in families.

Congress should reject the high-pitched whine of Alaska’s greed. The nation’s choice is that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be left as it is — as wilderness.

Allen E. Smith served The Wilderness Society as vice president, Alaska regional director, senior policy analyst and Arctic consultant. He was previously president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife and executive officer of Land & Natural Resources Division, USDOJ. He wrote this for CQ-Roll Call.

Photo: A rainbow over the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (Judith Slein via Flickr)


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