Wednesday, December 22, 2010

50 Year Anniversary of Arctic NWR

From Sierra Club Magazine November 2010
by Paul Rauber

This December, we celebrate the improbable survival of the wildest of the wild. Fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established what was then called the Arctic National Wildlife Range to protect the "unique wildlife, wilderness and recreation values" of 8.9 million acres in far northeastern Alaska.

In 1980, its size was doubled, and it was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Most was designated wilderness—with the exception of a strip of land north of the Brooks Range that is believed to harbor large deposits of oil.

Congress has fiercely debated whether to allow drilling there ever since. In 1995, President Bill Clinton's veto of a budget bill that included drilling in the refuge led to a shutdown of the entire federal government. Just this spring, in the wake of the BP oil disaster, Sarah Palin claimed that her "drill, baby, drill" mantra actually referred to "safe onshore places like ANWR."

For the moment, the refuge is safe, and the vast migrations of caribou continue as they have for millennia. Environmental groups and Native people who depend on the caribou are still pushing for wilderness protection for the coastal plain, as well as for "resilient habitat" principles to be incorporated into the refuge's new management plan, now being drafted.

"We've worked to protect the refuge for 50 years," says Sierra Club senior regional representative Dan Ritzman. "Now we're looking forward to the next 50 years, or 100 years. Because of climate change, this is one of the most-threatened habitats in the United States."

While the refuge officially celebrates its 50th birthday this year, the area's natural wonders have been championed since the 1920s—by pioneering conservationists Olaus and Margaret Murie, and later by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who called it "this last American living wilderness."

In their footsteps comes author Terry Tempest Williams, who adapted the following essay for Sierra from her book The Open Space of Democracy (Orion Society, 2004). Read "The Open Space of Democracy.

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