Every year, more than 100,000 caribou gather on the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the world's great natural spectacles, topped off in May when as many as 50,000 calves are born.
For this reason, the land is sacred to the local Gwich'in native people, who have long regarded the refuge's coastal plain as "the sacred place where life begins." Because of its connection to the caribou herd, the Gwich'in have pushed to keep this land protected. Most people who have heard about the refuge—and the controversy over its future—don't know this. They also don't know how close this beautiful area is to changing forever.
For years now, wealthy oil interests have pushed to open the refuge to exploration and drilling. Right now, the area's status as a wildlife refuge means that drilling can begin whenever Congress votes to approve it. Unfortunately, Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who will chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the next Congress, just came out in favor of drilling in the refuge. If he and other Republicans get their way, that could happen at any time.
That's why I urge President Obama to designate the refuge a national monument as quickly as possible. Monuments exist as eternal statements of the natural wonders of the United States, and are often accorded legal protections to match. Teddy Roosevelt created the first national monument at Devils Tower in Wyoming more than 100 years ago, and later did the same for the Grand Canyon. These were farsighted decisions.
Giving the refuge the protection it needs would also set an important precedent across the West: Just because a company has its eye on a piece of public land doesn't mean the land is up for grabs. Oregon Resources is trying to extract everything it can from Coos Bay, Ore., while Rosemont Copper is rushing to open a mine in the scenic Santa Rita Mountains near my hometown of Tucson, Ariz. Every Westerner who enjoys the public lands knows there's a local version of this story. The refuge may be in Alaska, but "the refuge" as a threatened place can be found in our own backyards.
Frederick Law Olmsted, who helped design New York City's Central Park, once said of the land that eventually became Yosemite National Park that we always need to consider "the rights of posterity" when deciding the future of our country. That's true today more than ever. Posterity will not look kindly on a decision to drill for oil in one of the world's greatest migration areas, especially one that we could save with a minimum of effort.
Arguments in favor of drilling in the refuge often repeat the same old arguments. First, supporters claim, "It will mean cheaper gas for consumers." Every oil company that's ever wanted to drill in a protected area has appealed to the pocketbook. The truth is that any oil patch, whatever its size, takes many years to amount to something. Building oil rigs in a wildlife refuge today won't make gas cheaper tomorrow, whatever the industry wants you to believe.
Second: "It won't harm the environment." Even minor oil wells require a large number of roads, landing strips and pipelines that can't help but get in the way of wildlife. In the refuge, caribou and polar bear breeding grounds would be at particular risk. Wastewater left over from mining activities contains high levels of toxins that are fatal to birds and other wildlife. Sludge containing oily residue, chemicals and leftover mining waste can choke habitats over a wide area. Much as we might wish, there's no environmentally friendly way to drill for oil.
Third: "Too many restrictions have been put on exploration." As we saw so dramatically in the Gulf of Mexico this spring, oil drillers enjoy too much leeway already. Industry complaints about over-regulation are like Wall Street bankers complaining about the size of their bonuses. We have to consider more than just a company's bottom line when deciding the fate of a unique American landscape. Once it's opened to digging, drilling and extraction, that's it—the refuge will cease to exist as a natural wonder.
The oil lobby has worked tirelessly over the past three decades to open up the refuge, only to come up just short every time. The land is still protected, but that protection could be revoked whenever Congress changes its mind. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge needs national monument status as soon as possible. President Obama could make a proclamation tomorrow, and this Congress would gladly support it. Time is short. We need action now.
Raúl M. Grijalva is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a Democrat representing Arizona's 7th Congressional District and chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.