"On our trips to the Arctic Wildlife Range we saw clearly it was not a place for mass recreation. It takes a lot of territory to keep this living wilderness alive, for scientific observation and aesthetic inspiration. The Far North is a fragile place." – Arctic explorer Olaus Murie, 1963
By Tommy Hough
American conservation suffered a devastating blow Thursday, as the Senate voted to "raise revenue" by authorizing wholly unneeded and unnecessary oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeast Alaska, passed as part a sneaky provision included in the overall federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year. There is no reason to expect Mr. Trump will not sign it when it reaches his desk.
Not since the decision to build Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite National Park has such a significant component of America's environmental identity been undone with such sudden, cowardly severity. We've lost the Arctic, and we lost it on our watch.
An amendment to pull Arctic drilling from the budget was offered by Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, but the vote failed almost entirely on party lines 52-48, with the exception of Republican Susan Collins of Maine, who voted for the amendment, while Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia voted against it.
The largest National Wildlife Refuge in the country, there has been a long and lengthy campaign to preserve ANWR – one of America's last, great, intact, pristine wildernesses – and it's now going to be opened to drilling without even the kind of national discussion we're having on other issues, like guns, Puerto Rico, kneeling for the National Anthem at sports events, and the usual horrible things uttered by the president on a daily, even hourly basis.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was first set aside by President Eisenhower in 1960, and later expanded by President Carter in 1980 with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which designated eight million acres of the refuge, or just over one-third, as Wilderness – the gold standard of American conservation.
Interestingly, the refuge was preserved with the intention of only opening it up for drilling if the nation suddenly found itself in a severe oil shortage, as was the concern in 1980 when the nation was still on the heels of the 1979 Energy Crisis.
Of course, in 2017, we're in the midst of an oil glut. Oil is cheaper now that it used to be, in part because of natural gas and renewables, but oil companies have been desperate to pry the Arctic open for decades, despite the clear, present and criminally obvious danger such activity poses to the region's sensitive, Arctic environment.
Every Alaska politician going back to Ted Stevens has wanted to open ANWR to oil drilling, and while there was some concern that Lisa Murkowski would use the political capital she earned by voting against repeated Obamacare repeals to earn Democratic support for drilling, other than Joe Manchin the Democratic bloc held firm. They should be thanked and applauded for doing so. We need more of them in the Senate.
With today's Senate vote, conservationists have lost a decades-long fight in the blink of an eye, and we stand to lose an enormous area of habitat and fragile ecosystem that affects land and water, as well as native Alaskans. We cannot continue to have our long-standing, public land conservation icons and landmarks picked off one by one by a Congress devoid of pride or honor, and who will not have to live with the consequences of the rising sea levels and global warming which they themselves are enabling.
In the Senate, we are only a few votes away from consolidating our natural heritage and protecting it as it has been protected for decades – our Wilderness areas, our National Parks, our National Monuments – but that threshold seems very far away on days like this.
When we say call your senators or your congressmen, or when we say something is all-hands on deck or a full court press, we're not crying wolf. You may have friends or family in other states with other senators than those we can rely upon in California. Utilize those relations and networks to call their senators, Democrat and Republican alike. In the fight against a Republican party that, through their repeated actions, votes and rhetoric, abhors any notion of conservation of our natural heritage, we cannot be islands. We must be the change our environment so desperately needs, again and again.
If you'd like to learn more or see photos of ANWR as the spectacular wilderness it is – and what may soon pass into myth – check out photos of the region from conservation photographers like Florian Schulz and Amy Gulick, or the photo archives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Photos by Steve Chase / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A San Diego County planning commissioner and former radio host at 91X and FM 94/9, Tommy Hough works as an environmental consultant with the ReWild Mission Bay campaign, and is a California Democratic Party delegate and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.