Washington – the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell announced today that it will pursue a recommendation for complete wilderness designation of ANWR. The Service has been studying its management practices under a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) of ANWR for more than 4 years and today announced its decision on one of 6 alternatives proposed. Variations of either no wilderness status quo, partial, or full wilderness were offered in the CCP. Wilderness designation equates to the most restrictive land use designation offered in the nation with no fly over, no use of any mechanized vehicle and limited foot access to an area. No resource development use of the area can take place. The designation flies in the face of the US Geological Survey’s review of the Coastal Plain of ANWR as the most prospective area on the North American continent to find a super-large oil and gas field. USGS estimated the “10-02” Coastal Plain to contain a mean average of 10.4bbls. of oil at a conservative 35% recovery rate.
The USFWS decision was met with strong opposition from Alaska’s Governor Walker, the Alaska State Legislature and the three Alaskan Congressional delegates, all whom are unanimous in their opposition to any wilderness designation in ANWR. All Alaskan elected officials at the state and federal level, including the government of the North Slope Borough, which includes ANWR in its territory, have been unanimous in their support of exploration on the Coastal Plain of ANWR for over 30 years. The current vote on the issue in Alaska’s state legislature is 60-0 in opposition to wilderness designation.
The USFWS CCP is a non-binding recommendation to Congress and does not actually declare wilderness land designation. Only Congress has the authority to declare wilderness. Congress has debated the issue for over 30 years and in 12 votes in the House and 3 votes in the Senate passed legislation in support of development and against wilderness designation. Only once did both bodies agree to the same pro-development bill in 1995 only to have it vetoed by President Clinton.
Further to fuel the fires against today’s USFWS decision is the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (ANILCA -1980), which formed the modern border of ANWR. ANILCA contains a “no more clause” which stated no more than 5000 acres can be declared wilderness in the state without Congressional approval. The coastal plain of ANWR is 1.5million acres. The USFWS has claimed the 10-02 does not fall under the clause because by inclusion in ANWR it already takes the land out of public domain and thus is not applicable to ANILCA. The State claims the wording and intent of the law are plain and simple, no new wilderness. ANILCA states the coastal plain must be held in a state ready to be included as wilderness land should Congress decide not to allow exploration. Given the 15 successful votes by Congress in favor of development it should be clear the view is decidedly against wilderness designation.
The USFWS CCP decision on wilderness also violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in that any study or declaration of wilderness must consider all alternative land uses. The CCP deliberately leaves out oil and gas exploration as a potential land use which is ironic considering the definition of the Coastal Plain under ANILCA is an area set aside for the study of oil and gas exploration potential. The State has maintained this study was a breach of NEPA since it was first proposed in 2010.
It will now be up to the State of Alaska to challenge the CCP. The only other CCP completed on ANWR was in 1987 and in that the Dept. of Interior stated any impact on the land would be minimal and could be mitigated. The history of development in the Arctic even just 2 miles away from the 10-02 has shown that over 30 years the land has not suffered and the wildlife has flourished. The Central Arctic Caribou Herd that migrates through Prudhoe Bay oil field just next to ANWR has increased from 5000 animals in the 70s to over 50,000 today. No animal that uses the coastal plain affected by current development has shown a decline in population or significant impact effect. The State of Alaska has always maintained the highest environmental protections on land uses in the world and state that declaration of wilderness will do nothing to enhance the wildlife or ecology beyond what it already is, only restrict any land use of the area beyond reason or need. Given the status of the 10-02 Coastal Plain currently, which is completely off limits to any trespass or development without congressional or USFWS approval, it is hard to see why additional formal designation is needed nor what would be achieved by it. Rather this wilderness designation is merely a political policy objective of the current Administration and President against oil and gas development in the Arctic of Alaska.