American Rivers at Risk: Alaskan land swap sets dangerous precedent

Camping along Beaver Creek, Alaska. Courtesy BLM.

It’s “break-up” here in Alaska, that time of year when the ice and snow that has covered our lakes, rivers, and trails all winter breaks up and begins to melt away. I complain about muddy trails, but I am willing to endure wet feet in order to watch — and listen to — my favorite streams and rivers coming to life. I am reminded of a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything.”

Unfortunately, every spring I am also reminded of the many threats that remain to our rivers in Alaska, and elsewhere in the United States.

Each April, American Rivers releases its annual list of America’s Ten Most Endangered Rivers. This year number eight on the list was Beaver Creek, a designated Wild River in interior Alaska.

Beaver Creek flows through the White Mountains National Recreation Area and eventually into the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Only the first 127 miles are considered “Wild” but if you float the entire length of the river, you can spend three weeks and 303 river miles enjoying a pristine wilderness experience, all the way to the mighty Yukon River.

A proposed land exchange between the Fish and Wildlife Service and a private corporation, however, could change all that. The proposal would transfer 110,000 acres out of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge ownership and into the hands of Doyon Ltd., a company that hopes to develop these lands for oil and gas.

Although a half-mile buffer zone would be established along Beaver Creek’s designated Wild section, this could not protect the creek from oil spills, noise pollution and the loss of scenic views to roads, pipelines, oil wells, and other infrastructure.

Another serious concern is the water that would be required to support an oil drilling operation — hundreds of millions of gallons. Lakes and wetlands in the Yukon Flats refuge are already drying as a result of climate change, so preserving upland water supplies is essential for ensuring that lowland lakes and ponds don’t completely dry up. This land exchange would sacrifice critical refuge uplands to water-intensive oil and gas development.

Ironically, the very agency mandated to protect the Yukon Flats refuge — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — was involved in negotiating this land exchange behind closed doors during the Bush Administration. With a new administration in place, The Wilderness Society is now hoping to persuade the agency to reconsider.

Last year The Wilderness Society was successful in delaying the project. We worked with rural communities that opposed the land exchange and made sure their concerns were heard.

We also brought to the agency’s attention climate change projections specific to the Yukon Flats refuge showing that warmer temperatures and a longer growing season could diminish water availability by 25 percent over the next several decades. With this work we have made the case that further interfering with the refuge’s upland water supply would significantly impact the productivity of important wildlife and waterfowl habitat in a broad portion of the refuge.

Beaver Creek and the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge are amazing places with outstanding scenic, wildland, wildlife, recreational, and cultural values. Indeed, that’s the reason Congress protected them.

If this land swap is allowed to move forward, it would not only place at risk a Wild River and National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but could also set a dangerous precedent for more of America’s finest rivers and wild places.

photo: Camping along Beaver Creek, Alaska. Courtesy BLM.