Alaska becomes key battleground in fight for America’s public lands

Alaska has become ground zero in the Trump administration’s efforts to turn over our public lands to development interests

With federal moves to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Arctic Ocean, and a plan to build a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge’s designated wilderness, Alaska has become ground zero in the Trump administration’s efforts to turn over our public lands to development interests.

As 2017 came to an end, Congress voted to open the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge—its sensitive coastal plain and the calving ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd—to oil and gas development. This came on the heels of a massive lease sale that offered every available acre of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska—more than 10 million acres—to the highest bidders. (Ultimately, less than 80,000 acres were sold, at bargain-basement prices.)

The administration is also starting the work of revising America’s Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, with the aim of reopening the Arctic Ocean to drilling after President Obama permanently withdrew it from the program just before leaving office. The Wilderness Society is committed to defending both the refuge and Arctic Ocean, and will be involved in efforts to ensure that drilling never happens.

Backroom deal leads to road through wildlife refuge

In early January, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made a backroom deal for a land exchange with the King Cove Corporation, turning over globally important waterfowl and wildlife habitat in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to allow the construction of an unnecessary road through the refuge’s wilderness and connect the remote town of King Cove with the nearby community of Cold Bay. The public had no say in the decision.

“As we settle into a new year, Alaska and the Arctic have clearly become the biggest battleground in the fight for America’s public lands,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, The Wilderness Society’s Alaska regional director. “We cannot stand by and allow our wildest places to be plundered by this administration. We will defend them, and the fight is just getting started.”

That fight is already headed to the courts, where The Wilderness Society, along with partner organizations, has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the Izembek land exchange.

“The Trump administration’s backroom deal for a land exchange ignores Interior’s previous science-based decisions against the proposed road,” Whittington-Evans said. “We’re going to court to block the land exchange and the boondoggle road project.”

"We cannot stand by and allow our wildest places to be plundered by this administration. We will defend them, and the fight is just getting started.” - Nicole Whittington-Evans

Oil and gas lease sales in the Western Arctic

We are also joining partner groups in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior challenging its decision to proceed with the NPR-A lease sale without closely examining the potential environmental impacts on fish, wildlife, habitat and subsistence resources that are vital to local communities.

“After years of progress and great victories in protecting Alaska and the Arctic, we find ourselves in a difficult battle with an administration that is determined to give away America’s public lands,” Whittington-Evans said. “That may be frustrating, but Americans must stand firm in defending our treasured public lands for our children and grandchildren. The Wilderness Society is committed to the fight and, with our supporters and partner groups, we will prevail.”

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