A Big Week for America’s Arctic

(The following op-ed was authored by Tom Campion and originally published on Roll Call on February 3, 2015)

A final Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that recommends wilderness protection for the highly valued coastal plain. A draft five-year oil and gas leasing plan for the U.S. outer continental shelf that would protect 9.8 million acres of ecologically vital areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Last week was a big week for President Barack Obama’s conservation legacy: bold steps on the Arctic Refuge, and important ones for the Arctic Ocean. Taken together, they represent a thoughtful and rigorous approach to balancing our nation’s energy needs with the conservation of America’s Arctic, one of the wildest places on earth.

This is an historic act of leadership, and as with all such actions, the president and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell are taking no small amount of heat from the oil and gas industry and a handful of their lock-step politicians. But the incremental march of progress is always disrupted by debate and conflict, and this issue is no different. We owe Obama and Jewell our gratitude for taking a bold step where others have feared to tread.

Protection of America’s Arctic is a personal passion and a priority for my own advocacy, as well as my philanthropy. Especially the Arctic Refuge, which has a coastal plain I have visited many times. I have explored this iconic American landscape with scientists, with members of the Gwich’in nation, with elected officials, and with the advocates, guides and explorers who work tirelessly for its protection. Today, they all share my appreciation for the president’s leadership, with full confidence that it was the right thing to do. But there is work ahead of us still.

President Dwight Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960, calling out its “unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.” Congress expanded its range and purpose in 1980 to include protecting the wintering grounds of the porcupine caribou herd and preserving the subsistence culture of the Gwich’in people as management priorities. But the Reagan administration then carved out the coastal plain of the refuge and set forth administrative guidance that it should be managed for oil and gas development. Ever since, the oil industry has been relentless in their attempts to open it up to drilling.

There are some places that oil rigs, and all of the roads and infrastructure to support them, just don’t belong. The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is one of them. Polar bears live and raise their cubs here. Migratory birds travel thousands of miles, from every state in the union and six continents, to nest here in the summer on a landscape full of sustenance and teeming with life. And tens of thousands of porcupine caribou make their annual trek to the coastal plain, their wintering grounds for millennia, and an anchor to the traditions and way of life of the Gwich’in nation for centuries.