REPORTER MEMO: Alaska Public Lands and Arctic Ocean

Aug 25, 2015

Animals from the Porcupine Caribou Herd cross a river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Arto Saari, Appeal to Reason Media

When President Obama visits Alaska at the end of August, climate change will be a key focus of his trip. The Wilderness Society developed the following memo to provide a brief primer on key Alaska public lands where the effects of climate change can already be seen. This information is intended to ease your research and inform your reporting during the president’s visit. It focuses on four areas where the president’s administration has made major, important decisions:

  • The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
  • The Arctic Ocean
  • The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska
  • Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

We hope you will find this document helpful as a quick reference. Please do not hesitate to call the number above if you require additional information or would like to arrange interviews with authoritative experts on the areas covered in the memo. Please note that publishable photos for the above regions are available at (Password: Wilderness).

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of America’s last remaining wild landscapes, unspoiled and vast, that exists as it has for millennia. Thankfully, the federal government in January of this year recommended that the refuge’s fragile coastal plain and other important areas should be permanently protected as congressionally designated wilderness areas.

This is an enormous step by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – which is in charge of this 19.5 million-acre parcel of federal land – and shows that land managers recognize the values of the refuge’s wilderness, and the need to preserve them for America’s future.

The Arctic Refuge is a spectacular landscape of tundra and mountains unlike any other in the United States. It is home to polar and grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, moose, fish and migratory birds, not to mention the incredible Porcupine Caribou Herd, which relies on the coastal plain as a calving ground.

The Gwich’in people have lived in the area for thousands of years, sustaining countless generations with the refuge’s subsistence resources, especially caribou. They call the coastal plain “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

Oil companies have long sought permission to drill here. But to allow industrial infrastructure like roads, drilling rigs and pipelines in this fragile habitat – not to mention the related air pollution and oil spills – could harm the caribou and threaten the culture and survival of Gwich’in villages.

The Arctic Refuge, of course, belongs to all Americans. It is a vital piece of our nation’s public lands legacy. This is our chance to preserve, fully intact, millions of acres of mostly pristine, wild land in its natural state.

Permanently protecting the refuge would be immediately beneficial to all Americans. Its diverse and rich ecology also has global significance.  About the same size as South Carolina, the refuge is managed to preserve its natural state with a diversity of plants and animals. Here, scientists can monitor and understand natural systems that have not been altered by human activity.

Researchers visit the refuge to study wildlife behavior, climate change, and how plants and animals cope with a warming environment. Alaska Natives engage in subsistence activities like hunting and fishing, which also bring sportsmen to the refuge. And the rivers, mountains and tundra attract visitors from around the world for recreational pursuits like float trips, photography, hiking, hunting and viewing wildlife.

Arctic Ocean

The Arctic Ocean is home to the entire population of polar bears in the United States, plus whales, walruses, seals and birds such as spectacled eiders and short-tailed shearwaters. Some of this wildlife, especially the endangered bowhead whale, is vital to the subsistence culture of the Iñupiat people of Alaska’s North Slope. Polar bears and spectacled eiders are both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Despite its abysmal performance during the company’s ill-fated drilling season in 2012, Royal Dutch Shell has deployed a fleet of vessels and equipment to the Arctic Ocean this summer to do exploratory drilling for oil off Alaska’s northern coast. Drilling efforts will be under way during President Obama’s visit to Alaska.

Shell’s series of blunders and environmental violations three years ago proved the industry incapable of safely mobilizing and operating in the remote, icy and stormy seas of the Arctic Ocean, with no technology for recovering significant amounts of spilled oil.

The company’s missteps seem to be continuing, with a hole torn in the hull of Shell’s Fennica icebreaker in July while it was on its way to the Arctic Ocean via waters that have not been charted since 1935. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association told reporters in July that less than one percent of all U.S. Arctic waters have been surveyed with modern technology.

No company in the oil industry has the skill and technology to operate safely in the brutal conditions of the Arctic Ocean. But Shell’s pattern of accidents, safety violations and bad decisions is especially troubling.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has estimated the risk of one or more major oil spills at 75 percent if Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193 tracts were developed to production. The risk to polar bears, bowhead whales and other marine species—as well as the Alaska Native communities that depend on wildlife for food and cultural practices—is simply unacceptable.

When the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout happened in the comparatively calm, warm and heavily industrialized Gulf of Mexico in 2010, 50,000 workers using 7,000 ships and boats could not save the marine life that died, the coastal areas that were oiled, or the deep-water habitat that was coated in crude.

In the Arctic, there are no deep-water ports, very limited housing for response personnel, only a handful of small airports, and the nearest Coast Guard base is about a thousand miles away.

The only way the Obama administration can protect the Arctic Ocean and avoid undermining the president’s promise to fight climate change is by not opening a major new region to oil and gas development and not allowing any offshore drilling in Alaska’s Arctic.

National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

The U.S. Department of the Interior in 2013 finalized its plan for the future management of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, protecting key wilderness, wildlife and habitat in the western Arctic while allowing oil and gas leasing to proceed on 11.8 million acres containing 72 percent of the reserve’s economically recoverable oil. The plan was a tremendous step toward ensuring that important ecological areas remain intact and that vital subsistence resources for Alaska Natives are preserved, while still allowing access to significant oil reserves.

This approach – identified as Alternative B-2 under the Interior’s Final Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement – balanced the needs of development and conservation in the western Arctic. It is a model for management of other BLM lands across the nation.

The western Arctic landscape contains ecological resources of global significance, including wetlands that are breeding areas for migratory birds from five continents, habitat for polar bears, walruses and seals and for caribou that have sustained Native cultures for thousands of years. Protecting these vital resources is especially important in light of Interior’s decision to allow offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Should oil production in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea proceed, a pipeline across the reserve to carry oil to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline system has been identified as a preferred route out of the Arctic.

Congress in 1976 directed the BLM to identify and protect “Special Areas” in the reserve that have exceptional ecological, subsistence and wilderness values. Since then, five such areas have been identified, and Interior’s management plan protects significant portions of them by restricting leasing. They include places such as:

  • The Teshekpuk Lake region – one of the largest wetlands complexes in the circumpolar Arctic. It is a place that provides essential habitat to millions of nesting and molting waterfowl and shorebirds from five continents, as well as invaluable calving grounds for tens of thousands of caribou that go there to give birth, raise their young, and use key migratory routes to escape Alaska’s notorious hordes of mosquitoes and other insects.
  • The Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area, which supports the highest abundance and diversity of bird life of all the coastal lagoons of Arctic Alaska, and where calving beluga whales and hundreds of walrus gather amid spotted seals and denning polar bears.
  • The Utukok Uplands—inland in the southwest portion of the Reserve —supports raptors and grizzly bears that thrive where several rivers carve out long corridors of important habitat, and one of the largest caribou herds in North America calves and migrates through, providing subsistence resources to many remote communities.
  • The Colville River Special Area includes a significant stretch of the Colville, which is the longest river in Arctic Alaska and drains approximately one-third of the Arctic slope. Cliffs along the river’s banks are inhabited by very high concentrations of nesting raptors, and the river is home to several species of anadromous fish. The river corridor is also used by caribou, moose, wolf, and grizzly bear and provides important access for subsistence opportunities and resources. 

Arctic wildlife thrive in these Special Areas because the landscapes are remote, wild, and provide some of the highest-value habitat in the circumpolar Arctic. By developing a management plan that protects Special Areas from resource development, the Interior Department ensured long-term protection for key parts of one of the world’s largest remaining tracts of wild, public land, while allowing oil and gas leasing elsewhere.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

In a significant victory for conservation and America’s public lands, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced in December 2013 that she would uphold a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to forbid the construction of a road through federally designated wilderness in Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Secretary Jewell was asked by road supporters to set a dangerous precedent by stripping a wilderness area of protections granted by Congress. The road, which already had been twice rejected by the federal government after extensive studies, threatened to set a terrible precedent for the entire National Wildlife Preservation System and National Wildlife Refuge System because de-designating congressionally designated wilderness lands has never been done for the purpose of building a road. The road would destroy sensitive wildlife habitat that is important on a global scale.

The road would have created serious threats to sensitive bird populations, brown bears, caribou and many other species. It also would have cut through the ecological heart of the refuge, degrading lands identified under the RAMSAR Convention (in 1986) as the first wetlands area in North America to be placed on the List of Wetlands of International Importance.

The community of King Cove has spent years demanding construction of the road, despite receiving $37.5 million dollars in federal funds under the 1996 King Cove Health and Safety Act to address local medical evacuation concerns, including purchase of a state-of-the art hovercraft vessel. While in operation between 2007 and 2010, the hovercraft was used for dozens of successful medical evacuations. Nevertheless, local officials took the vessel out of service, and they continue to claim that King Cove needs the proposed road to get to the nearby Cold Bay airport during emergencies.

Road proponents are routinely quoted as saying that “people are dying” during medical evacuations from King Cove. In fact, there has not been a fatal incident involving medevacs from the community since 1990. That’s a safety record that is a quarter-century old.

With Jewell’s final road decision made, now is the time to talk about alternatives that will address King Cove’s needs and protect Izembek’s high-value wilderness habitat.

The Wilderness Society, like other organizations that opposes the road proposal, believes that local residents deserve safe and reliable transportation options. As Secretary Jewell said during as visit to Alaska in August 2013, Izembek is not an issue of humans vs. wildlife. It’s about finding a solution that serves all needs.

The U.S. Coast Guard is discussing plans for a year-round base in Cold Bay to improve its ability to respond to emergencies in this region of Alaska. The full-time presence of aircraft and marine vessels staffed with highly trained personnel just minutes away from King Cove would benefit not just one community, but all of the region’s roadless towns and villages. It also would improve the Coast Guard’s ability to monitor shipping traffic and respond to calls from vessels in distress at sea.

Another option is an aluminum landing craft/passenger ferry that would travel an eight-mile route from a terminal near King Cove to the community of Cold Bay. The Aleutians East Borough previously told the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers that it would consider developing this alternative if the road proposal was not approved.

As described by the Borough in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the vessel would accommodate about 30 passengers, occasional vehicles or ambulances, and a limited amount of cargo.

The no-road decision made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 and supported by Secretary Jewell in December of that year was well-reasoned and appropriate because such a road would be an irresponsible expenditure of more than $80 million in taxpayer dollars; there are better solutions to local residents’ needs; and the proposed road would significantly compromise vital wildlife habitat while not providing faster or more consistent transportation or access to medical care for local residents.