Saving our last wilderness

There are natural places in North America, at a remove from most human life, which exist unspoiled, a snapshot of pre-history. They are as rare as they are sacred.

In Alaska’s last wilderness, the intersection of politics and oil production is a combustible mix. Fortune seekers raced to Alaska in the early 1970s to work on the pipeline. Every year, residents receive their four-figure dividend check from the state’s oil-fueled Permanent Fund. The dividends will flow until the last drop dribbles from Prudhoe Bay.

Generations from now, young people will ask why we ravaged our last wild places to extract fossil fuels that only propelled climate change. But Americans will continue ravaging, thank you very much, until markets, energy technology or political leadership radically shift. For now, the long-term mission is damage control.

The best opportunity to make history in more than three decades is a bipartisan bill to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain, the last remaining portion of the refuge not designated as wilderness. The proposal will safeguard subsistence hunting and traditional uses for the Gwich’in tribe, an Alaskan Native people who’ve called the coastal plain home for millennia. The designation also preserves critical habitat for more than 100,000 caribou, grizzly and polar bears and too many migratory birds to count.

The ANWR Wilderness bill, introduced Wednesday, is co-sponsored by Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Illinois Republican Mark Kirk. It has been referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Unlike Cantwell’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Environment Committee doesn’t include any Alaskans.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure that must be preserved for future generations to experience and enjoy,” Cantwell said. “We need to advance forward-looking solutions for America’s energy future, while preserving this treasured public land and the unique ecosystem that depends on it.”

The subtext of “forward looking” is non-carbon energy independence. When God’s country is off limits to “drill, baby, drill,” innovation is a necessity. It’s wilderness as an action-forcing mechanism.

History can be made whole. The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was a colossus; nevertheless, 1.56 million acres of wilderness in the coastal plain were horse-traded in the swivet to pass the bill before Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. (Future Interior Secretary James Watt was no fan of wilderness.)

Legislation is the art of the possible, and in 1980, Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens said no way on protecting the coastal plain. That would be a fight for another day. And that day has come.

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