Fish and Wildlife Service Considers Wilderness for Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain

Aug 12, 2011

With today’s release of a draft revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made an important decision to formally consider Wilderness for the crucial Coastal Plain area – the biological heart of our nation’s wilderness icon.   As part of this plan, a full Wilderness Review was done for the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain for the first time ever - presenting a historic opportunity to protect the Arctic Refuge for future generations.

The 50-year old Arctic Refuge is the only national wildlife refuge established specifically to preserve wilderness values. Its Coastal Plain is a vital part of the larger ecosystem that is home to some of America’s iconic wildlife species - including whales, seals, wolves, polar bears, grizzly bears, muskoxen and caribou. In addition, nearly 200 bird species from six continents depend on the Arctic Refuge, including birds that migrate to every state in America.

The Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain functions as the critical birthing grounds for polar bears, many bird species and the internationally important Porcupine Caribou herd. For this reason the people of the Gwich’in Nation call this area “the sacred place where life begins.” For the Gwich’in, protecting the Coastal Plain, a vital piece of their traditional way of life and culture which has been based on the Porcupine Caribou herd for thousands of years, is a human rights issue.

“We are co-managers of the Arctic Refuge because we live there. As a co-manager, I would say that the Coastal Plain should be designated as Wilderness,” said Sarah James, chair of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “The Coastal Plain is the most important part of the Arctic Refuge. It is the birthplace for the caribou and many life forms. It is the only place where the polar bear is being protected now. It’s very important to protect these special places permanently.”

The Arctic Refuge is currently the only portion of Alaska’s North Slope that is legislatively closed to oil and gas leasing, exploration, and development. Year after year, millions of Americans have reaffirmed their support for the protection of one of our nation’s last great wilderness places. Throughout the 90-day public comment period, Americans everywhere will ask the US Fish & Wildlife Service to recommend Wilderness designation for the Arctic Refuge's Coastal Plain to protect its unique wilderness, wildlife, and subsistence values.

“Since President Eisenhower established the Arctic Refuge in 1960, our nation has acted to embrace the bold wilderness vision of the refuge’s founders and to protect it from oil and gas interests.  In the face of climate change and a renewed push to develop the Arctic for oil and gas, our country’s leaders should support the wishes of Americans by taking the necessary steps to permanently protect the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain - a globally significant, vital homeland and birthing ground for millions of birds, polar bears and caribou, as well as a critical subsistence resource,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Director, The Wilderness Society.

As mandated by law, FWS must develop a CCP for every national wildlife refuge by 2012, and revise existing plans every 15 years. The last Arctic Refuge plan was done in 1988.  The Arctic Refuge’s revised CCP process began in the spring of 2010 and is expected to be finished by the spring of 2012.  For more information on the process visit: http://arctic.fws.gov/ccp.htm.

Adapted from a press release with the Alaska Wilderness League, Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife and others.

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