My afternoon as a Polar Bear

Alex preparing for her day as a polar bear.

There was a bit of hesitancy in communications director Kathy Westra’s voice last Thursday when she asked me how I would feel about wearing a polar bear costume to an outdoor mid-day rally at the Department of the Interior to raise awareness about oil drilling in Arctic waters.

As a communications intern new to Washington, I jumped at an opportunity to draw attention to myself, and I then proceeded to research the issue more in-depth, so I would know why I was wearing this enormous furry outfit in the noonday Washington heat.

As it turns out, I wore white for a worthy reason.

In its final days, the Bush Administration announced a 5-year oil and gas leasing plan that could devastate America’s Arctic Ocean by opening an additional 80 million offshore acres to exploration and development. Not enough research has been done in the area about the potential impacts of drilling, and fortunately in early February 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar temporarily stopped the Bush administration’s proposed program in order to gather more information. He then extended the public comment period on this plan to 180 days.

Well, yesterday was the 180th day for public comments, and as of noon more than 280,000 concerned Americans had written to Secretary Salazar saying please don’t drill in one of our nation’s most treasured and fragile regions. The sun shone brightly as I and other staff members from The Wilderness Society and different environmental and wildlife organizations gathered in front of the Interior Department’s headquarters in Washington, Sec. Salazar’s office.

Alex and Stuart in their costumes.One of the areas where the oil companies want to drill is in Bristol Bay, the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. (The salmon is sustainably fished and also pretty darn tasty.) While I proudly held my hand-made sign reading “arctic drilling: you’ll make a killing,” folks around me helped themselves to free wild salmon cakes made from super-fresh Alaska fish supplied by Naknek Family Fisheries in Bristol Bay.

Stuart, an intern from the Alaska Wilderness League wore a full head and body salmon suit, and together we overcame biological differences as bear and fish bonded and encouraged onlookers to thank Secretary Salazar for critically reviewing the five-year plan — and to ask him to create a comprehensive, science-based energy and conservation plan for America’s Arctic.

Which brings me to why I was in a polar bear suit to begin with. In two of the proposed areas that the Bush plan would drill (the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas), not only are there polar bears, walruses, whales, seals and seabirds that would be endangered if there were an oil spill, there is also no current technology that could clean up likely oil spills in the Arctic’s icy conditions.

Sec. Salazar is taking all of this into consideration, and his Special Assistant for Alaska, Kim Elton, made an appearance at the event to accept the giant postcard we made for Sec. Salazar asking him — on behalf of all the concerned citizens who submitted comments — to protect the fragile Arctic.

Though my polar bear suit caused me to sweat, I was proud to stand with this group of concerned people. I also gained a new appreciation for any large mammal with lots of fur that is threatened by global warming. At least when it was over, I could remove all that hot fur!

Alex preparing for her day as a polar bear. Photo by Kathy Westra.
Alex and Stuart in their costumes. Photo by Eunice Park, Courtesy WWFUS.