Wild Idea

The president is asking Congress to designate crucial Arctic habitat as wilderness.

April 03, 2015

“The sacred place where life begins.” That’s what First Nations call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain, and it’s little wonder why—the place is essential habitat for migratory caribou, endangered polar bears, wolf packs, musk oxen, and 130 species of migratory birds. Today, President Obama took another step to making sure the pristine ecosystem doesn’t become a place where life ends.

This afternoon, the president formally asked Congress to designate massive swaths of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness—the highest form of conservation protection possible for federal lands. If approved, it would be the largest wilderness designation in U.S. history, covering 12.28 million acres, including 1.5 million acres of coastal plain habitat.

Roads, vehicles, and construction are forbidden in areas with wilderness status. And that means no drilling for oil and gas—a crucial concern for the coastal plain. The debate over whether to drill in the region has been raging for 35 years.

The president first announced his plan to protect the coastal plain from energy development back in January and since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been managing the area as wilderness pending an official decision from Congress. Today’s formal request puts the ball in their court. Gulp. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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