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.
Since the late 1980s, drilling proponents have regularly introduced and pushed drill-the-refuge bills in Congress, including nine in the last Congress alone. Most pro-drilling bills have not made it past the committee level, but drilling proponents have continued to propose desperate schemes to open the coastal plain. In the 109th Congress, we saw two of the most cynical: attempts to insert Arctic Refuge drilling into both budget legislation and a military-funding bill during a time of war. Thanks to courageous leadership and the will of the American people, all of these efforts have been defeated.
Over the years, the Arctic Refuge debate has become steeped in rhetoric. Here’s what is true: The Arctic Refuge coastal plain is the ecological heart and wildlife oasis of the entire Refuge. It is, in the words of the naturalist Peter Matthiessen, “the earth’s last sanctuary of the great Ice Age fauna that includes . . . bears, gray wolves and wolverines, musk ox, moose, and, in the summer, the Porcupine River herd of caribou, 120,000 strong,” as well as millions of birds, including those that migrate to every state and every continent. Here is another fact: drilling the Arctic Refuge would not solve America’s energy crisis. To the contrary, drilling there would only continue, not reduce, our dependence on fossil fuels.
Our addiction to oil not only threatens a natural legacy, it compounds another grave threat – global warming. The science on global climate change is undeniable, and Alaska has already been hit hard by its effects, harder than anywhere else in the nation. The state’s average temperature has risen 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years, compared with a 1-degree rise over the rest of the United States, and there have been major reductions in populations of coastal and marine bird species, seals and sea lions.
More drilling in America’s arctic would put irreplaceable wildlife in double jeopardy, first by invading a pristine wildlife habitat and second by exacerbating the problems of global warming in an already weakened ecosystem. Nowhere is this cycle more clear than with the drastic melt of sea ice off the refuge. Sea ice is the primary habitat and feeding ground for U.S. polar bears, currently under consideration for listing as threatened by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Developing the coastal plain will further contribute to the climate gases causing the sea ice melt, which, in turn, will force hungry and sensitive pregnant bears onto the land where they will come into direct contact with the physical reality of this development.
In 1986, my uncle Mo introduced the first Arctic Refuge Wilderness bill, a bill that has been introduced in every Congress since. In the current Congress, I helped introduce this bill with Representatives Markey (D-MA) and Ramstad (R-MN). The “Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Protection Act” (H.R. 39) honors the legacy of the Arctic Refuge and the great environmentalists who have come before us.
Ordinary Americans have saved the Arctic Refuge to this day. Now we must win the battle for permanent protection.
Tom Udall comes from a family distinguished for its devotion to public service. His father, Stewart Udall, was elected four times to Congress before being appointed secretary of the interior by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and his uncle, Morris “Mo” Udall, not only served in Congress for 30 years but was also a major presidential contender in 1976. Tom is currently serving a fifth term in Congress, representing New Mexico’s Third Congressional District. In the House, he has earned a reputation as a thoughtful, principled and effective legislator.