As part of a family with a long history of preserving the natural wonders of the United States, I find the effort to protect the ecologically fragile and truly wild Arctic National Wildlife Refuge deeply personal. My father, Stewart Udall, as interior secretary for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, saw in Alaska our country’s last best chance to preserve wilderness on a scale to match its incredible wildlife and ecosystems. To force resolution of long-ignored disputed land claims between Alaskan Natives, the state, development interests and the federal government, he froze federal lands development in Alaska. The negotiations that followed eventually led to the passage of the largest, most visionary land and wildlife conservation law in our nation’s history, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).
My uncle, Congressman Morris K. Udall of Arizona, authored the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Signed into law by President Carter in 1980, ANILCA set aside an unprecedented 104 million acres of fragile Alaskan lands for national parks, wildlife refuges and conservation areas. My uncle has often told me that the passage of this act was one of his greatest achievements, but it did not come without its costs. Out of the passage of one of our nation’s greatest conservation laws was also born one of the most significant, long-standing wilderness battles in modern history.
In the 1950s, biologists Olaus and Mardie Murie, Robert Marshall and others were studying the unmatched resources of what would become known as the Arctic Refuge. Thanks to the efforts of such pioneers, President Eisenhower set an original 9 million acres of this area aside for protection in 1960 as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. When Congress passed ANILCA two decades later, the Range was expanded to 19 million acres and designated a wildlife refuge with wilderness protections. Unfortunately, in what many consider the “great compromise” of ANILCA, Congress failed to include the northern-most 1.5 million acres of the Refuge, the coastal plain − in the Refuge’s wilderness designation. Instead, the bill left the decision to protect or develop the coastal plain to an act of a future Congress. And so began the debate over oil drilling in our nation’s preeminent wildlife refuge.