Alaska lawmakers seek to block new ANWR wilderness areas

Hoping to thwart yet another federal land grab in their state, the Alaska congressional delegation is asking the Interior Department to forego any new wilderness designations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

In a May 4 letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D) and Congressman Don Young (R) expressed their strong opposition to an Interior Department plan to “review” possible new ANWR wilderness designations.  The bi-partisan delegation emphasized that only Congress has the authority to designate new areas of ANWR as wilderness.

The lawmakers pointed out that Alaska already leads the nation in wilderness areas, not just in ANWR but in areas located elsewhere in the state.  Instead of spending taxpayer money looking for new wilderness areas, they urged Secretary Salazar to use his department’s resources to study ANWR’s potential for oil and natural gas development.

“The ANWR coastal plain likely contains the continent’s largest onshore deposit of hydrocarbons and, given advancements in technology, it is possible to access these resources without any significant impact on the wildlife frequenting the coastal plain,” the delegation told Salazar.

Under the National Wildlife Refuge Systems Improvement Act of 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is required to update Comprehensive Conservation Plans for each refuge every 15 years.  ANWR’s plan was last updated in 1988.  Murkowski and Begich have recently said they do not oppose updating ANWR’s conservation plan per se. However, they believe this should be done legislatively, preferably through an amendment to the Interior Department’s FY 2011.  In this way, elected officials, not bureaucrats, would determine the fate of any new proposed wilderness areas in ANWR.

What triggered the lawmakers’ concern was an announcement by FWS in April that said a new plan for ANWR was needed to adjust to climate change and land use.  This set off alarm bells that the Obama administration would use the pretext of “climate change” to close off vast areas of ANWR to future oil and gas exploration.  Land-use restrictions common to wilderness areas make natural resource development for energy and hardrock mining within their boundaries all but impossible.


About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.