Protections for western Arctic are worth celebrating

Caribou graze in the western Arctic's National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

U.S. Geological Survey

After years of fighting to protect Alaska’s western Arctic from unrestricted oil drilling, lovers of public lands can celebrate the Bureau of Land Management’s final adoption of “Alternative B-2.”

It’s a management strategy that balances development and conservation on America’s largest tract of public land.

The oil industry’s allies have long argued that the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska -- also known as the Western Arctic Reserve -- is nothing more than a big sponge full of oil waiting to be drilled. The truth is that the reserve is believed to hold only 10 percent as much oil as the U.S. Geological Survey once thought.  And nearly 40 years ago, Congress told the BLM to protect Special Areas within the reserve.

Over the years, The Wilderness Society has worked with the BLM, the state of Alaska, ConocoPhillips, the North Slope Borough and Audubon Alaska to collect and analyze scientific data that helped decision makers understand how caribou use some of the reserve’s most important habitat. The relationship between agencies and conservation organizations – and the solid science we produced individually and collectively – helped decision makers understand the potential impacts of oil drilling in the nearly 23-million-acre reserve.

We also helped elevate the voices of Alaska Natives who spoke in defense of the land they depend on to feed their families and preserve their culture. Our policy and technical expertise, and our members’ comments to decision makers, helped the Obama administration understand how important it is to strike a fair balance in the Western Arctic Reserve.

The BLM’s final management strategy protects special habitat for caribou, birds, grizzly bears, wolves and polar bears. By doing so, it also protects Alaska Native communities.  

And it does all this while allowing the oil industry access to 72 percent of the economically recoverable oil in the reserve. It even allows the option of a pipeline across the reserve to transport oil from the Chukchi Sea to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

So the reserve will help meet America’s demand for energy, and irreplaceable habitat will be set aside to ensure its protection for future generations.

That’s fair. That’s balanced. And that’s something to celebrate.