The headline in the Albuquerque Journal Sept. 8 pronounced, ‘Better Mileage Rules Backed.’ “Wow,” I thought. “That’s encouraging!” Then my eye dropped to the sub-headline: ‘ANWR Drilling Also Supported Among Voters.’
Research & Polling, Inc. obtained these figures from a poll, commissioned by the newspaper, of 400 registered voters across New Mexico. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed felt that Congress should increase the mileage standards for new cars, and 53% supported opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil and natural gas drilling. I have been stewing about this disturbing news and how my Jottings might be a vehicle to spread the word about the importance of our national wildlife refuges, and ANWR in particular.
The National Wildlife Refuge System celebrated its 100th birthday in 2003. The following proclamation by President Theodore Roosevelt on March 3, 1903 launched the national commitment to wildlife preservation in motion:
It is hereby ordered that Pelican Island in Indian River in section nine, township thirty-one south, range thirty-nine east, State of Florida, be, and it is hereby reserved and set apart for the use of the Department of Agriculture as a preserve and breeding bird for native birds.
From this inauspicious beginning, the National Wildlife Refuge System now encompasses 538 refuges dotted across all fifty states, occupies 95 million acres, and reflects our country’s promise to safeguard both the habitats and its inhabitants for future generations. During the past fifty years, a number of key legislative actions strengthened the nation’s resolve to preserve our nation’s natural resources e.g. the Wilderness Act, the National Trails and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Forest Management Act. Other legislative policy initiatives included the National Environmental Policy Act, which created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. All strengthened the promise of conservation. Despite this commitment, administrative rule changes and proposed legislation threaten to dismantle these safeguards.
The polling figures, I believe, reflect the public’s reaction to high gas prices and their belief that there is no other alternative. It is an easy choice that does not require any change in lifestyle.
ANWR, the largest refuge, comprising 19.2 million acres, is comparable in size to the state of South Carolina. Its website describes the diversity of ecosystems, including boreal forests, taiga plains, rocky peaks, river valleys, lagoons, barrier islands, and fragile tundra along the coastal plain. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency states, “A prominent reason for establishment of the Arctic Refuge was the fact that this single protected area encompasses an unbroken continuum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems.” The legislation creating the refuge permanently established 8 million acres as wilderness, primarily encompassing the mountainous areas, leaving the balance in question
The area bordering the coast, known as 1005, is the center of the drilling controversy. Most of the publicity focuses on the Porcupine and Central Arctic Caribou. However, this area is also home to 177 species of birds, many of which nest on the tundra and marshy wetlands. The law establishing the refuge specified further study on this 1.5 million acre region, which has made it vulnerable.
Existing oil development is located along the northern Alaskan coast up to the refuge border. Proposed legislation would allow drilling on 2,000 acres. On the surface, this sounds reasonable. However, what most do not realize is that this is not 2,000 contiguous acres, but spread throughout the coastal plain, like tendrils of a spider web. According to an article in Time Magazine, ‘Some Shaky Figures on ANWR Drilling,’ oil companies only have to count the area where a drilling platform actually touches the ground. The article states, “Each drilling platform can take up as little as 10 acres. The pipelines are above ground. For space purposes, the amendment counts only the ground touched by the stanchions holding up the pipe. Road widths also are conveniently left out of the space limit.”
Scattered drilling development would leave the area permanently scarred. An article in the autumn 2005 Wildlife Refuge Magazine details the dangers. “Direct effects include loss of nesting habitat to drill pads and road construction, seismic exploration, and dust from roads and construction work. Indirect effects include the inevitable oil spills, changes in drainage around roads, and potentially higher predation rates on shorebirds by birds of prey and foxes drawn to human activity.”
Drilling would put many waterfowl and shorebirds at risk, as this area supports the highest density of breeding shorebirds in North America. Others that breed on coastal islands depend upon this area of the refuge for critical feeding grounds before they embark on their marathon flights to the southern hemisphere. Eric Jay Dolin quotes former Supreme Court Chief Justice, William D. Douglas in the Smithsonian Book of National Wildlife Refuges, “this last American living wilderness must remain sacrosanct.”
Why does it matter whether these species are threatened? Congress answered this question in the preamble to the Endangered Species Act: “endangered and threatened species of wildlife and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the nation and its people.” While extinction is a natural part of evolution, the rate of extinction has accelerated at an unnatural and alarming rate through loss of habitat.
A comprehensive alternative energy policy is needed – one that is not dependent on oil, whether our own or foreign oil. Scott Weidensaull, in the conclusion of his book Return to Wild America, sums it up. “We have, I think, a responsibility to stretch beyond what common sense says is possible….The key is hope, because hope when painted with the ferocious love Americans have for their land, becomes action.”