Advocates Cheer Revival of Bill to ‘Restore Critical Protections’ to Arctic Refuge

“We need a law on the books that will affirm these lands are not for sale, preserve the wilderness of the Coastal Plain, and uphold the sovereignty of Arctic Indigenous peoples,” said Sen. Ed Markey, one of the bill’s lead sponsors.

By Brett Wilkins.  Published 2-1-2023 by Common Dreams

A polar bear rests on a barrier island in the Beaufort Sea in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: YangTS/flickr/cc)

Indigenous, climate, and conservation advocates on Wednesday welcomed the reintroduction of congressional legislation to restore protections and prevent fossil fuel development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), along with Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), reintroduced the Arctic Refuge Protection Act, the continuation of legislative efforts dating back to the 1980s to protect the critical wilderness and its inhabitants.

The lawmakers said in a statement that their bill “will restore critical protections to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—home to the Gwich’in people and the nation’s largest national wildlife refuge—by designating the Coastal Plain ecosystem as wilderness under the National Wilderness Preservation System.”

If passed, the bill “would permanently halt any new oil and gas leasing, exploration, development, and drilling on the Coastal Plain, and would safeguard the subsistence rights of the Arctic Indigenous peoples who depend upon the unique ecosystem within the Arctic Refuge,” the statement explained.

As Huffman’s office noted:

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge covers 19.6 million acres and is the largest unit in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The 1.56 million-acre Coastal Plain, the biological heart of the refuge, contains the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd and is home to denning polar bears, musk oxen, wolves, and more than 150 species of migratory birds. The 9,000-strong Gwich’in Nation, living in Alaska and Canada, make their home on or near the migratory route of the Porcupine caribou herd, and have depended on this herd for their subsistence and culture for thousands of years.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure and a cultural and spiritual home for Arctic Indigenous peoples,” said Markey. “The traditional relationship that the Gwich’in and Iñupiat have had with the refuge for generations, as well as the singular ecosystem on the Coastal Plain, should not be put into harm’s way because of old failed promises of a fictional financial windfall.”

“We need a law on the books that will affirm these lands are not for sale, preserve the wilderness of the Coastal Plain, and uphold the sovereignty of Arctic Indigenous peoples—who must be consulted regarding the use, management, and conservation of the Coastal Plain,” he added.

Karlin Itchoak, Alaska regional director for the Wilderness Society, stated that the bill “recognizes not only the importance of protecting wildlife and public land, but also shows respect and concern for the Indigenous peoples who live in and near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

“The Coastal Plain of the refuge is sacred to the Gwich’in Nation, and the Iñupiat people have stewarded this land since time immemorial,” Itchoak added. “Protecting the Coastal Plain from oil drilling is essential to their cultures, food security, and ways of life, as well as to the global climate.”

Some Indigenous and conservationist activists expressed their deep disappointment last year after congressional Democrats excluded Arctic protections from their $430 billion budget reconciliation package. Protections including a measure to end the Trump-era mandate for oil and gas leases on the Coastal Plain were included in the Build Back Better package that made it no further than passage by House Democrats in 2021.

The lawmakers said the reintroduced bill “would enshrine the protections sought by President [Joe] Biden on his first day in office, which were reaffirmed last June when the administration temporarily suspended drilling lease sales in the Arctic refuge.”

However, they stressed that “the Coastal Plain ecosystem remains at risk due to oil and gas lease sales mandated by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”—also known as the Republican Tax Scam—signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. Such lease sales ultimately generated little interest.

The reintroduction of the Arctic Refuge Protection Act came on the same day that the Biden administration’s Bureau of Land Management infuriated climate advocates by publishing an environmental assessment recommending partial approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, a major drilling initiative on Alaska’s North Slope, which contains much of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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