Obama’s Alaska visit expected to highlight changes in Alaska’s Arctic

Arctic national wildlife refuge, Alaska. 

Ron Hunter.

President Obama’s trip to Alaska at the end of August will shine a spotlight on the Arctic and the growing climate change impacts that pose significant threats to wildlife and Alaska Native villages.

The region already is experiencing dramatic effects of climate change, with more intense storms, beach erosion, melting permafrost, shifting wildlife habitats and disappearing sea ice. These changes threaten the centuries-old subsistence hunting heritage upon which villagers depend and, in some cases, the future of the communities themselves.

With this context, it’s important to recognize that the Obama administration has made great strides in managing and protecting Alaska’s Arctic landscapes. Large, intact landscapes are more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Protecting Alaska’s wild places

In January 2015, the president recommended to Congress that more than 12 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be declared wilderness—the highest form of land protection—including the fragile coastal plain that is a critical calving area for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, a key food source for Alaska’s Gwich’in people.

And under Obama’s leadership, the Bureau of Land Management adopted a plan for the western Arctic’s National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that balances conservation with energy production.

Roughly half of the western Arctic reserve is protected as designated “Special Areas.” These are landscapes with high-value habitat that is home to polar bears, caribou, fish and migratory birds, among other species including the especially important Teshekpuk Lake region. The remaining portions of the 23 million-acre reserve are available for leasing and include 72 percent of its economically recoverable oil.

That’s a management strategy that can serve as a model for other BLM lands across the nation.

Dangers of offshore drilling

Unfortunately off-shore drilling remains a different story. The federal government has allowed Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean, a decision The Wilderness Society opposes. The harsh, remote environment and the lack of infrastructure for launching a major oil spill response—combined with Shell’s series of blunders and missteps in 2012—make offshore drilling in Alaska far too dangerous.

A historic opportunity for conservation

Obama will be the first American president to visit Alaska’s Arctic while in office, so this is a historic opportunity. It is a chance for him to see first-hand the effects of climate change in the place where impacts are already dramatically visible.

And it’s a chance for him to learn more about the lands he has taken steps to protect, and the highly-sensitive Arctic Ocean where the oil industry is taking extreme risks.

The Wilderness Society sincerely hopes his visit will benefit Arctic conservation for decades to come.