ANCHORAGE, Alaska — President Obama is being urged to bestow national monument status on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for its 50th anniversary in what supporters say would finally put the refuge's coastal plain beyond the reach of oil companies.
They want the country's largest and most untamed refuge to join the likes of the Statue of Liberty in New York, the Giant Sequoia groves of California, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and George Washington's birthplace in Virginia.
National monument status could put an estimated 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil beyond the grasp of oil companies forever.
That sounds nice, but it's a bad idea, said Wayne Stevens, president and CEO of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce. He said there is a "huge disconnect" in this country between products people want and the resource development required to provide those products.
"We are shutting this country down," he said.
But other drilling proponents are less alarmed.
"For 30 years Congress has debated this issue," Adrian Herrera, operations manager for Arctic Power, a group promoting Alaska's pro-drilling position on ANWR, the oil-rich coastal plain just east of Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field. "I don't think it will work."
Conservation groups, businesses, religious organizations, Gwich'in Nation representatives, as well as a slew of senators and representatives, disagree. They want Obama to exercise his authority on ANWR's 50th and protect one of America's last remaining spectacular wilderness landscapes.
More than 80 members of Congress, 170 scientists, some 300 businesses and organizations and 22 religious organizations have signed letters to the president.
"Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a moral issue. As people of faith, we not only have a commitment to care for creation, but our faith also tells us to protect God's sacred spaces," the letter from religious leaders says.
Conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, are encouraging Obama to pick up his pen and "strengthen protections for the region's unique wildlife, wilderness, and cultural resources."
Pro-monument forces gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
"Now is the time to create a refuge from the fossil fuel policies that have devastated the economy of the Gulf. Now is the time to protect the refuge," said Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, as he rallied the troops.
In 1960, under President Eisenhower, an order was signed setting aside 8.9 million acres in what was then the Arctic National Wildlife Range. The squabble began 30 years ago when the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act signed under President Carter doubled the size of the refuge but left the door open to oil exploration on the coastal plain.
Supporters of monument status say one of America's greatest treasures has been under attack ever since.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., whose father, Morris Udall, was key to getting ANILCA passed, is one of the senators calling for the highest possible protection for the refuge.
"On ANWR's 50th anniversary, there's no more fitting way to celebrate than to grant it the strong, long-term protections it deserves so that our children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy this unspoiled American treasure," Udall said Thursday.
Kara Moriarty, deputy director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, which speaks for the industry, said it is appalling that there is a push to lock up an area so rich in oil when fossil fuels will be needed to meet the nation's energy needs for decades to come.
On top of that, Alaskans overwhelmingly want ANWR opened to drilling, she said.
"I think it is another stunt to stop development in an area that is not even in their own back yards," Moriarty said. "It is our back yard and I find it offensive as an Alaskan."
David Jenkins with Republicans for Environmental Protection said he hopes that the 50th anniversary will allow people to step back from the politically-charged issue and reflect on the issue anew.
"It is a sweeping landscape that is very valuable to wildlife, to America's sense of the untamed lands that we encountered when we first came here," he said. "For people of faith, it is a magnificent example of the spectacular beauty that God has created."