The Obama administration is poised to set aside 1.4 million acres of coastal land in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, designating core areas of the refuge as wilderness, the White House announced Sunday. The move would prohibit motorized access to the area as well as the construction of roads, and is expected to cause tension with Alaska Republicans and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The White House is also expected to put part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling as part of a five-year leasing plan this week, the Washington Post reported, and could impose additional limits on oil and gas production in parts of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is about 19.8 million acres and home to the most diverse wildlife in the arctic, the White House said. Alaska has 58 million acres of wilderness and more than half of that land is protected from motorized access as well as the construction of roads, the Post said.
“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in the White House statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”
Congress will have to approve the wilderness designation, but the Interior Department will immediately begin managing the area. Democrats and Republicans have fought for 35 years over how to manage ANWR, which boasts significant petroleum reserves but also provides critical habitat for calving caribou, millions of migrating birds, polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In her new role she will be in charge of debates over the Keystone XL pipeline, oil exports, offshore drilling, renewable power and access to federal lands. She is an advocate for lifting the ban on crude oil exports, which stands in direct contrast to measures implemented by the Obama administration.
“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive,” Murkowski, who spoke to Jewell about the department’s plan during a brief phone call Friday, said in a statement. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. … I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.”