08/16/2011 12:11 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2011

The Arctic Refuge: A Place Worth Fighting For

The ashes of my good friend Mollie Beattie rode the winds before settling slowly beneath the surface of the crystal blue mountain lake in the heart of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. A few tears were shed among the close friends and family members gathered along the shore, but many let a smile creep across their face. As she had wished, Mollie was now at rest in one of North America's wildest places, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Arctic refuge is not your typical resting place for a dear friend's ashes, nor is it your typical travel destination. Most folks never set eyes on this vast land tucked away on Alaska's North Slope. But for the few who do, it is a humbling and life-changing experience. That was true for Mollie, the first female director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it was certainly true for me.

When Mollie passed away in 1996, I traveled to the refuge with a small number of her closest friends and family to help spread some of her ashes in a place she loved dearly and worked so hard to protect. And during my all-too-short time there, I came to see what Mollie saw. I came to understand that this unique national wildlife refuge is a place worth fighting for.

As the National Wildlife Refuge System's largest land-based refuge, the Arctic refuge supports a vast array of wildlife. Its coastal plain is the most important onshore denning habitat for America's vanishing polar bears, as well as the calving ground of the renowned Porcupine caribou herd. And, each year, millions of birds from six continents and every state in the U.S. make their way to this special place to nest.

But the refuge is undergoing a dangerous transition. Disappearing sea ice and melting snow cover are making it harder for animals to find food and shelter. Entire ecosystems are expected to shift northward, bringing with them new species competing for a limited amount of resources. For the 38 different mammal species who call the Arctic refuge home, these changes could have dire implications. New research from Defenders of Wildlife reveals 16 of those mammals to be extremely or highly vulnerable to the changes warming temperatures will bring, including the polar bear, Arctic fox, lynx and North Slope herds of caribou. Without help, these specialized mammals may not survive the changes a shifting climate will bring.

Fortunately, we have a unique opportunity to increase the chances of their survival now. This prospect comes by way of revisions now being considered to the Arctic refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Plan, a management plan currently being developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. One of the key recommendations of this plan could be for Congress to formally designate the refuge's coastal plain a wilderness area. Such a designation would prevent oil and gas development in the coastal plain, thereby avoiding even greater peril to the survival of species on the refuge due to climate change.

Without a doubt, Big Oil and its lobbyists in Congress will decry such a suggestion. They've been after the Arctic refuge for development purposes for decades, falsely claiming that the amount of oil that lies beneath the refuge will solve our country's energy crisis. Never mind that any oil that might be found on the refuge wouldn't make it to market for 10 years, nor would it make a dent in the price at the pump. And despite oil companies' misleading claims about developing oil fields with only "small footprints," the fact remains that industrial scale oil and gas development would destroy the wilderness character of the Arctic refuge forever. Already, this summer has seen the risks of oil and gas development played out, including Exxon Mobil's 42,000-gallon-oil spill in the Yellowstone River and a BP pipeline leak in Alaska that spilled 2,100 to 4,200 gallons of a methanol and oily mixture onto the plant life on the tundra. The evidence is clear: oil companies cannot be trusted with our treasured places -- and that includes the Arctic refuge.

Like Mollie Beattie, I have fought relentlessly to protect the refuge's pristine coastal plain -- both as her successor as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and in my role here at Defenders. And I will continue to work to protect the refuge and the wildlife it supports, whether the threat is from climate change or oil companies, or both. The Obama administration should do the same, and pursue a wilderness recommendation for the coastal plain of the refuge. Because, as one of America's most unique natural treasures, the Arctic refuge is indeed a place worth fighting for.