THE BLOG
01/27/2015 10:09 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

America's Wildlife Refuges Belong to All of Us

It's one of our nation's most iconic bastions of pristine wilderness. It supports over 200 arctic species. Its coastal plain is a critical calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates hundreds of miles each year from the Yukon to reach it. And it contains some of the most important on-shore denning habitat for mother polar bears along the North Slope. Unchanged for millennia, it is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, often referred to as the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Obama administration's recent announcement recommending a wilderness designation for the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain makes a significant statement. It says the administration stands by the best available science and values our natural heritage, our National Wildlife Refuge System and our nation's legacy of conservation stewardship of important federal lands over short-term economic profits, drilling and destructive development. And it shows the president shares the same values past presidents exhibited when they designated the first national wildlife refuge in 1903 and announced permanent protection for places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite.

This is a big moment for our nation. But the true challenge lies ahead: Congress must approve of the wilderness designation to make protection permanent. Sadly, the Arctic Refuge has been in the crosshairs of Alaska's lawmakers and powerful energy development interests for decades. They look at this wondrous landscape and see a place for oil fields, not a wilderness paradise.

Senator Lisa Murkowski and other members of the Alaska delegation are already decrying the recommendation, calling it a "declaration of war" on state sovereignty and claiming that it would jeopardize our nation's energy future. But President Obama's endorsement of wilderness for the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge has nothing to do with Alaskan sovereignty, since the refuge is federal land and the resources within its boundaries are held in trust for all Americans, not just Alaskans.

There is simply no sustainable future in destroying priceless habitat in the short-term pursuit of last century's energy solutions. And while the oil industry loves to tout its "small footprint" for drilling oil on the North Slope, let's be honest: Authorizing oil and gas development in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge would leave a steel industrial spider's web of oil pipelines and pumping stations spread across the landscape, changing the ecology and wilderness values of that area forever.

Simply put, there is no other unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System that surpasses the Arctic Refuge in terms of its exceptional habitat to native and migrating species, particularly on its coastal plain. Mother polar bears dig dens there, the Porcupine caribou herd calves there and millions of migratory birds from around the world stop there to rest, nest and raise their young. The entire refuge spans a diverse landscape of coastline, marshes, mountains, rivers, forests and tundra. It's not hard to see its importance as a conservation icon; it truly is a priceless place that is a gift to us all.

This wilderness recommendation is not part of a radical agenda. It was not made on a whim. Sunday's announcement came after decades of study, debate and engagement with the public. It is based on the best available science about the irreplaceable characteristics of the coastal plain, the wildlife it supports and the benefits it provides. It stands as part of an exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement and Comprehensive Conservation Plan, both required by law for proper stewardship of our national wildlife refuges. And at every turn, the evidence has been clear: The Arctic Refuge's coastal plain is a priceless landscape of pristine land and deserves the utmost protection that our nation can provide.

The Obama administration has made history by formally recognizing coastal plain's inherent wilderness values and how much we stand to lose as a nation if we jeopardize its safety for short-term economic gain. Protecting the coastal plain from oil drilling isn't just the better option. It's the right thing to do for generations of Americans to come.