Alaska, Now More Than Ever

Monday’s UN report, based on “overwhelming evidence” sounds a blaring alarm about what’s happening to natural ecosystems, which—among other things—are the support systems necessary for continued human existence: “Nature and its vital contributions to people, which together embody biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are deteriorating worldwide.”

Together with closely related climate disruption, this largely ignored loss of biodiversity—the variety and abundance of creatures and natural processes—leaves us precious little time to act, if we hope to pass on to our kids a fit world to live in.

It’s a myth that frogs will sit passively in water as the temperature rises toward boiling. But that is kind of what’s been happening to us and our biological environment. This report from the UN is, in effect, the thermometer.

The good news in the report is that, while our nature-based “safety net is stretched almost to the breaking point,” there are viable strategies for stemming this unexpectedly dire trend and, so to speak, saving the frog. Perhaps the simplest for us to implement is just to stop mucking up the last, big, largely natural land and seascapes we still have.

And for the U.S. government, the most obvious, most effective, most critical, and in many ways easiest place to do that is Alaska.

Caribou in autumn in Denali National Park

Photo Credit: blmiers2

Intact wild spaces are what natural scientists call biodiversity refugia. They have experienced some human impacts, for instance from airborne pollutants and global warming. But in terms of biodiversity, scenic values, and resilience, they’re still pretty much how they were created. They still boast a full, or nearly so, complement of native species. Their essential functions are working away in the background. 

Bulldozers and graders haven’t created pathways into them for disruptive, colonizing, foreign organisms. Dams, seismic testing, and road cuts haven’t destroyed natural waterflows. Fracking and water withdrawals haven’t degraded aquifers. Chainsaws haven’t stripped out forests and mining hasn’t ripped out the land itself. Oil rigs, pipelines, and tankers haven’t spread oil slicks. Grazing, human carelessness, and systematic logging of large, fire resistant trees haven’t knocked natural fire regimes totally out of whack.

These last best places shelter biodiversity at its most robust, buffer it from climate change, and give species the breathing room and space to adapt over time. And while numerous factors affect how secure they are, how well they provide these vital mitigating functions, size does matter

The biggest, in many ways the very best, of these last best places in the U.S. are those held in trust for all Americans, up in Alaska. There, the state’s license plates proclaim it “The Last Frontier.” It’s also our last clear chance to save native biodiversity on a truly grand scale. Federal lands and waters harbor our largest wildlife refuge, our largest federal reserve of any kind, far and away our largest national forest, and our last, large, and largely pristine ocean.

Created by: S. Lee

Every single one of these giant biodiversity refugia is under assault by the Trump administration. Every one of these is the focus of a concerted effort to promote, with taxpayer dollars, throwback industrial development that would forever mar them, degrading their capacity to conserve the beleaguered biodiversity that underpins life as we know it and fueling climate change.

In Southeast Alaska, the mammoth Tongass National Forest, at 17 million acres, is the heart of the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth. Its entire complement of native species—bears, wolves, eagles, sea lions, flying squirrels, all five Pacific salmon—remains intact. No single U.S. forest ecosystem stores nearly so much carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Photo Credit: John Hyde

To secure it all, all we have to do is get our elected officials to tell the U.S. Forest Service to stop. Stop implementing the largest old growth logging project the country has seen in more than a quarter century. Stop spending tax dollars developing another, potentially larger logging project. Stop spending on a plan to open up the rainforest’s most pristine reaches to still more timber sales and logging roads.  Stop trying to wreck the biodiversity you should be doing everything within your authority to save.

To the north is the Arctic Ocean, remote, fragile, storm-tossed, bound in ice 8 months a year, and cloaked in darkness all winter. Incredibly fertile during its brief open water season, with a seabed replete with mollusks and other food sources and waters enriched by upwelling nutrients. A breeding ground and/or nursery for countless seabirds and marine mammals. And quite plausibly the worst place on Earth to drill for oil, where spills are functionally assured and effective clean-up impossible.

Photo Credit: USGS

President Trump himself has tried to nix a permanent drill ban there (NRDC and our allies are in court so far successfully blocking him). And his Interior Department is pursuing “global energy dominance” by proposing annual offshore lease sales in each of its component seas, the Chukchi and Beaufort. While simultaneously paring back the drilling safety rules its predecessor finally adopted after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And here, too, Congress has the power to make that impossible, to do its job and tell the administration there will be no more shameful, wasteful, destructive, federally-underwritten efforts to despoil a great biodiversity refuge and aggravate climate change.

Onshore in our Arctic, it’s the same story. The Trump administration is hellbent for leather to open up the incredibly rich and delicate—as well as arrestingly beautiful—coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to seismic surveys, oil rigs, service roads, and pipelines. At 19 million acres, this largest of all our wildlife preserves is deservedly called America’s Serengeti. Musk oxen roam here, polar bears den, caribou—the lifeblood of traditional Gwich’in Native cultural survival—calve and nurse. Birds from every continent nest and build up reserves to migrate stunning distances. All threatened by exploration for and development of oil. Oil for which, by the time it could actually be delivered to consumers, there will be no earthly legitimate need. But legislation has just been introduced in Congress that just says no, restore to this great reservoir of Nature’s rich variety the protection it—and we—so badly need.

Photo Credit: Florian Schulz

To the west of the Arctic Refuge lies an even larger federal reserve, our largest, created in the early twentieth century for a bygone function: a petroleum reserve for the Navy to tap in time of war. Today, the Trump administration is doing all it can to wreck this natural treasure store—regrettably still titled the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, but as biologically rich and visually scenic as the Refuge to its east—through still more fossil fuel development. 

Photo Credit: N. Lawrence

Trump held the largest onshore oil and gas lease in history there his first year in office. And another massive one last December. Now his Interior Department is trying to change the ground rules that protect much of that reserve, by re-writing the governing management plan. Again, a staggeringly anti-public use of public funds to wreak damage on a unique safe haven for biodiversity.

You didn’t need to be an environmentalist to see, intuitively and immediately, that all of these development plans squander public resources in multiple ways and couldn’t be reconciled with the public interests. Now, the U.N. report makes clear in detailed and compelling fashion, just what is at stake in ending this assault on our matchless biological heritage in Alaska.

About the Authors

Niel Lawrence

Alaska Director and Senior Attorney, Land & Wildlife program

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