The Gloves Are Off

Trump is going after America’s most pristine wildland. Literally the “last best place” in the country. It’s a brazen move—and proof that no part of our natural heritage is safe from commercial exploitation these days.

The Arctic Refuge is our grandest national park (even if Congress has failed to officially declare it one, as the Los Angeles Times has noted). Nineteen million acres of spectacular, unspoiled nature. It’s the largest and wildest of our publicly-owned reserves.

Huge untouched vistas carved by surging rivers and framed by towering peaks. Wildlife unlike anything still found in the Lower 48. Musk oxen from the Stone Age. Denning polar bears. Fierce gyrfalcons, vast herds of caribou shadowed by wolves, mother grizzlies training their young, hundreds of migratory bird species. And just offshore, belugas, humpbacks, ice seals.

The Refuge is a human rights icon as well. Its coastal plain is the calving grounds for 200,000 caribou that range down from Canada’s Porcupine River in the world’s longest land migration. These animals are crucial to Gwich’in peoples whose villages stud the migration route—and for whom the caribou are both essential sustenance and the center of cultural life. The Gwich’in name for the plain translates as “Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” and they hold its integrity so dear they will not set foot there. Much of the Refuge is Wilderness by statute.  The rest is managed as though it were. No commercial extraction activities. Land kept as we found it, to pass on from generation to generation in its unblemished glory.

But the Trump administration thinks it would be better off as an oil field. 

A shocking memo, secret until recently leaked, lays out plans to change federal rules to allow private industry—and the State of Alaska—to shoot seismic survey lines across the Coastal Plain, looking for oil.

Trump’s Interior Secretary says he just wants to take a peek at that oil, just wants “to use science to update our understanding” of the Coastal Plain. The industry asks why conservationists are afraid of a little knowledge.

It’s not knowledge that we resist. It’s the seismic exploration itself, that would badly disturb a parkland part of whose magic is that it is still so undisturbed. 

Seismic testing means running convoys of 30-ton thumper trucks, equipped with massive off-road tires, across delicate tundra and meadows in parallel lines a few hundred feet apart. It’s an activity that’s been halted elsewhere by federal court order because it’s so destructive.

That’s just for openers.  You don’t do seismic for the sake of “science.” You do it because—if it yields the precise kind of information you’re looking for—you intend to wreak further havoc. Seismic is what you do when you are looking to permanently ruin an area forever by drilling. 

And drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is somewhere between pointless and just nuts.

The truth is, it’s completely irrelevant exactly how much oil lies under this magnificent preserve. If the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has oil, we don’t need it. The world is awash in oil—more confirmed discoveries than we could ever burn, unless we want to roast the planet. 

But even if we did need oil, the Refuge is the last place we should tear up to get at it. 

That didn’t stop the State of Alaska from suing to get in there with thumper trucks a couple of years ago. Their case got thrown out. It’s against the law to conduct seismic testing in the Refuge. Still, Trump has installed one of the losing lawyers as Zinke’s right hand man.  Having lost in court, he’s out to change the law.

And the administration’s rationale is as crazy a megalomaniac idea as it has produced. Trump and Zinke want to re-purpose our publicly-owned natural heritage in pursuit of “global energy dominance.” Making the U.S. the leading source of fossil fuels—not to meet the needs of the American people—but so their friends in the industry can take over oil supply worldwide.

In other words, they want to double down on old energy. Embrace the dirty power sources of the past—the polluting stuff the world is rapidly turning away from.  And in the process, whack priceless, timeless landscapes that you and I own, that American people have fought for decades to protect.

We have a clean energy sector that is growing by leaps and bounds. The Trump administration would cede that to other countries. Solar and wind power are now the cheapest types of new energy generation. Renewables accounted for 55% of all new generating capacity worldwide, last year. China gets this. It has emerged as the number one investor in carbon-free energy development, creating millions of jobs for its citizens. India does, too. It’s quadrupled solar power in two years, and is on track to have 18 Hoover Dams worth of photovoltaic panels by 2020.

But Trump and his cabinet do not. They care more about their deep ties to the fossil fuel industry. They will sacrifice the last best places you and I own, just for a final payday for their oil buddies on the way out.

And if they can get into the Arctic Refuge to do that, they can do it pretty much anywhere.

About the Authors

Niel Lawrence

Alaska Director and Senior Attorney, Land & Wildlife program

Join Us