Zinke aims to undo more wildlands protections, this time in Alaska

Arctic terns are among the millions of birds that use the Western Arctic Reserve to breed.

Florian Schulz

In what is shaping up to be one of the largest public lands sell-offs in American history, the Trump administration is preparing to potentially open all 23 million acres of Alaska’s Western Arctic to oil drilling.

Drilling plans could include globally unique ecological areas and high-value wildlife habitat such as the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.

Also known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the Western Arctic Reserve is just west of northern Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area also at risk from the Trump administrationThe reserve is home to polar bears, caribou, and millions of migratory birds that nest and breed on Alaska’s northern coast. It also contains the largest wetlands complex in the circumpolar Arctic and some of the highest density shorebird nesting habitat in the circumpolar North

Don't let Trump sell out the Western Arctic Reserve to oil companies--add your name!

Catering to oil and gas industry

In May, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed a secretarial order to “jump-start Alaskan energy production in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska” by starting a revision of the Obama-era management strategy for the reserve, which is the nation’s largest tract of public land.

Now the Bureau of Land Management, responsible for managing the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska or NPR-A for short, has invited the oil and gas industry to nominate tracts within the NPR-A for future lease sales, including the sensitive lands surrounding Teshekpuk Lake.

These moves are designed to implement policies that entirely cater to the oil and gas industry while ignoring the desire of the American people and local communities to protect special places on our public lands.

An August 7 press release from the BLM stated that, “Offering all tracts allows industry to provide information to aid in determining which areas to potentially open for leasing that are currently closed.”

Undoing the Obama-era management strategy would be a gift to the oil and gas industry. The strategy, completed in 2013 and known as the Integrated Activity Plan, struck a balanced approach to management of the reserve, with a little more than half (11.8 million acres) available for oil and gas leasing—representing 72 percent of projected economically recoverable oil—with the remaining lands protected for conservation and subsistence purposes.  

Too much at stake

The Teshekpuk Lake Special Area is one of the largest and most unique wetlands complexes in the worldIt provides essential habitat to millions of nesting and molting waterfowl and shorebirds from every continent, as well as invaluable calving grounds for tens of thousands of animals in the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd that migrate there each year to give birth, raise their young, and escape Alaska’s notorious hordes of mosquitoes and other insects.

There should be balanced management, including both wildlife conservation and recreation, not just energy development in the NPR-A. Photo: Romal Dial

The NPR-A’s unfortunate official name is a relic of an earlier era and not representative of how the our public lands are legally required to be managed for multiple usesThe reserve’s antiquated name was established in 1923—in the early years of Prohibition and five years before the discovery of penicillin—as an emergency petroleum reserve for the U.S. Navy at a time when it was converting its fleet from coal power to diesel. Today, the Bureau of Land Management is required to manage the NPR-A for multiple values, including conservation.

By creating a management plan that safeguards Special Areas from resource development, Obama’s Interior Department established protections for key parts of one of the world’s largest remaining tracts of wild, public land, while allowing oil and gas development elsewhere. It is a sound, balanced, and science-based strategy that should set an example for other BLM lands across the nation.

At a time when the BLM is enduring dramatic budget cuts and staff reductions, it is irresponsible to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to gut a sound management plan and turn over our treasured public lands to oil and gas companies. 

Some places are just too special to drill, and the western Arctic’s designated Special Areas are among them. Stop the sell-out by urging BLM's Alaska state director to protect incredible wildlife habitat.