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Obama Administration recommends designating most of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness

On Sunday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released its revised proposed comprehensive conservation plan and final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 19.64-million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The FWS’ preferred alternative recommends an additional 12.28 million acres—including the Coastal Plain—for designation as “Wilderness”. (“Wilderness” (with a capital “W”) refers to designated Wilderness areas, with accompanying restrictions.) The FWS also recommends four rivers—the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning—for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Currently, more than 7 million acres of the refuge are managed as Wilderness. However, more than 60% of the refuge—including the Coastal Plain—does not carry that designation. Implementation of the preferred alternative would change that.

Preferred alternative for ANWR. The map of ANWR for Alternative A shows the management areas as they currently exist: the light green for Wilderness, the tan for Minimal management. The map for Alternative E shows the extent of the proposed change. The darker green areas would join the current light green area as official Wilderness. Source: FWS. Click to enlarge.

Background. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) encompasses approximately 19.64 million acres of land and water in northeastern Alaska and is administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) as a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System). The Revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Arctic Refuge will guide management of the Refuge for the next 15 to 20 years. It revises the Service’s original Comprehensive Conservation Plan for Arctic Refuge, which was approved in 1988.

The original 8.83-million acre Arctic National Wildlife Range was established in 1960 by Public Land Order 2214. Twenty years later, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) into law, establishing new Federal conservation units across the State, enlarging several existing units, and designating official Wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers. ANILCA established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The boundaries of the Refuge incorporated the original Arctic Range into Arctic Refuge.

The ANILCA designation offered more protection to the area than was afforded by the original Arctic Range. Under ANILCA, Arctic Refuge was closed to all forms of appropriation under the public land laws, including the mineral leasing and mining laws.

Approximately 7.16 million acres, most of the original Range, was designated as Wilderness when ANILCA became law. This Wilderness area is the largest designated Wilderness area in the Refuge System.

ANILCA excluded approximately 1.57 million acres of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain from Wilderness designation. This area of the coastal plain, also known as the “1002 Area,” was opened to limited oil and gas exploration.

In 1987, the Department of the Interior published the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, Coastal Plain Resource Assessment report. This report found the coastal plain met the criteria of the Wilderness Act for designation, and the Secretary of the Interior recommended to Congress that the entire 1002 Area should be open to oil and gas leasing programs at such a pace and in such circumstances so as to avoid unnecessary adverse effects on the environment. With the submission of the report, the statutory authority to permit exploratory activity on the Refuge’s coastal plain expired, and Congress made no provisions for any further reports or for any additional exploratory activities. To date, Congress has not acted on the recommendation in the report.

FWS established three management categories were established for Arctic Refuge in the 1988 Plan: Minimal Management, Wilderness Management, and Wild River Management. The Revised Plan retains the same three management categories, with a few descriptive modifications.

Under all of the management categories, oil and gas leasing, drilling and extraction for commercial purposes is not allowed unless specifically authorized by Congress (Section 1003 of ANILCA). However, the Wilderness designation carries with it numerous other restrictions, particularly on transportation and infrastructure.

Only Congress has the authority to designate Wilderness areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers. If Congress chooses to enact the recommendation, it would be the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the Wilderness Act more than 50 years ago.

Recommendations for Wilderness or Wild and Scenic River designations require approval of the Service Director, Secretary of the Interior and the President. President Obama said he will make an official recommendation to Congress to enact the plan.

While the Service is not soliciting further public comment on the revised plan/EIS, it will be available to the public for review for 30 days, after which, the record of decision (ROD) will be published. At that point, the President will make the formal Wilderness recommendation to Congress.

The proposed plan. FWS explored six alternative scenarios. All lands not currently designated as Wilderness were included in a wilderness review. FWS established Three Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) were established; FWS determined that all three met the minimum criteria for Wilderness with the exception of lands in the immediate vicinity of Arctic Village and Kaktovik.

The alternatives present a range of management options: from no new wilderness recommended to all three WSAs recommended for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). All the management options retained the three management categories for Refuge lands: Minimal, Wilderness and Wild River.

In discussing issues it considered, but did not address in the alternatives, the FWS noted:

We did not address issues such as oil and gas development or updating seismic data on the coastal plain (the “1002 Area”) despite the numerous public comments we received that expressed support for and opposition to Wilderness designation and oil and gas development in Arctic Refuge. Section 1003 of ANILCA specifically prohibits oil and gas leasing, development, and production anywhere on Arctic Refuge until Congress takes action to change the provision.

FWS selected Alternative E as its preferred alternative; Alternative E recommends the qualified and suitable lands and waters in all three Wilderness Study Areas (nearly 12.28 million acres) for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Until Congress makes a decision, recommended lands will continue to be managed under the Minimal Management category. Again, only Congress can designate Wilderness.

Also, the preferred alternative recommends four rivers for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System: the Atigun, Marsh Fork Canning, Hulahula, and Kongakut rivers. Only Congress can designate rivers for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System.


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