In a few days, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be celebrating 50 years of protection. Tonight in Washington, DC, we are celebrating this momentous occasion with a gala featuring some of the people that have been responsible for keeping the Refuge safe for half a century.
More than 50 years ago, The Wilderness Society leaders Olaus Murie and his wife Mardy toured the area that became the Refuge – capturing photographs, film, and scientific data that helped convince the Eisenhower administration to set aside the area as the Arctic National Wildlife Range.
Now, fifty years later, we should celebrate this achievement in conservation. For fifty years, the hundred-thousand strong Porcupine caribou herd has been protected in its annual migration to the coastal plain to give birth to the next generation of caribou. Polar bears - a species increasingly threatened by habitat loss - have a higher denning density in the Arctic Refuge than in any other place in America's Arctic. The Gwich’in people, whose forefathers have lived on the lands of the Arctic Refuge for millennia, still call it their home. And hundreds of thousands of birds, from songbirds to ducks and geese, fly to the Arctic Refuge every summer to nest before returning to our backyards and beyond.
There have been challenges along the way – The Wilderness Society, along with many others have beaten back efforts to open this incredibly special place to oil and gas drilling. Some members of Congress over the years have called for and tried to legislate opening up this crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, seeking the scant barrels of oil under the arctic tundra at the cost of one of the most diverse and special places in the world. House Republicans are already making it a part of their agenda for the next Congress.
Now, fifty years of protection later, we should instead be talking about giving the Arctic Refuge a proper anniversary present – the gift of forever. We should protect the polar bears that den on the shores and frolic on the ice off the coast forever. We should protect the birthing grounds of the caribou forever. We should protect the homeland of the Gwich’in people forever.
Several months ago, I asked “if we, as a nation, cannot protect this place, what can we protect?” It is clear that we must continue to dedicate ourselves to protecting the wild lands of the Arctic Refuge – a last wilderness in the Last Frontier. As we celebrate this historic milestone, we shouldn’t be asking when these pristine wilds will be despoiled by drilling, but rather how soon we will be granting permanent protection to this remarkable landscape.
This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post