09/03/2014 05:25 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Keeping Our Arctic Wilderness Wild

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Fifty years ago, the battle to create the magnificent Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in far northeastern Alaska inspired Congress to approve America's Wilderness Act, the law that has since protected millions of acres of some of our nation's most iconic and cherished wild places.

The Arctic Refuge is, simply put, astonishing. Its snow-capped mountains, boreal forests and arctic tundra are home to more than 200 species of migratory birds from six continents and every state in our union, as well as caribou, brown bears, polar bears, wolverines, and wolves. Yet the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the coastal plain that serves as a nursery and migration stop for hundreds of thousands of birds and caribou, has never received protection under the Wilderness Act.


It's simple: oil and gas interests. International petroleum companies are eager to sink their pipes into this fragile ecosystem for the vast oil and gas reserves that are believed to lie beneath its surface.

But consider what's at risk. Few places on our planet are as isolated as the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain, yet so connected to the entire globe.

Each fall, the elegant white Tundra Swan leaves its nesting grounds on the coastal plain and flies 4,000 miles to the Chesapeake Bay for the winter.

The sparrow-sized Northern Wheatear wings an astonishing 13,000 miles one way from the refuge, across Asia and the Middle East to Africa.

The Bar-tailed Godwit, which has the longest documented non-stop migration of any bird on the planet, migrates 7,200 miles across the open waters of the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand.

To many Americans, the sights and sounds of the Arctic coastal plain are the stuff of a lifetime bucket list. But even if you never hope to visit, Americans in every state benefit from protecting it - whether you enjoy watching the birds in your neighborhood that depend on the coastal plain to raise their young or whether you want your children and grandchildren to live in a world where the majestic Porcupine caribou herd still roams the Arctic tundra.

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. It is responsible for preserving 110 million acres of our nation's most iconic and cherished wild places - places like the most unspoiled parts of the Shenandoah National Park, the Florida Everglades and Yosemite National Park.

I hope this is also the year we celebrate an Obama administration decision to recommend the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for Wilderness status. The Wilderness Act provides us a great opportunity to assure the future of the coastal plain as a permanent nursery for the birds that connect it to your state rather than as an oil field for international petroleum companies.

A Wilderness recommendation from President Obama would honor the Act's 50th Anniversary with a meaningful step toward permanent protection of the refuge's coastal plain.

If he does not act, we could see irreversible damage that would be difficult, if not impossible to repair:
  • Construction and operation of a major industrial complex would create a spider web of development that degrades and destroys critical bird and wildlife habitats and visitors' opportunity to experience wilderness.
  • Oil fields attract predators that prey on nesting waterfowl and other birds as we've already seen with oil development in Prudhoe Bay and other central Arctic oil fields.
  • Pipelines crisscrossing the landscape would impede the migration of the caribou.
  • Oil spills -- big or small -- kill birds, wildlife, and marine creatures. Every year hundreds of spills occur in the North Slope oil fields, putting thousands of vulnerable birds at risk.

The stakes are high, just as they were 50 years ago. President Lyndon B. Johnson summed it up best when he signed the Wilderness Act into law in 1964, declaring in his gravelly southern drawl, "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."


David Yarnold is President and CEO of the National Audubon Society.