ANWar: The Historic Fight for Alaska’s Wilderness Heats Up

Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - US Fish and Wildlife Service
Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service

As Obama looks to the end of his presidency, he’s turned to the Arctic North to put some heat on his environmental detractors. In January 2015, President Obama designated 12.3 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness, the largest formal designation of its kind. President Obama’s conservation legacy has long been a source of contention among environmental activists. While he has made substantial gains in the areas of energy security and sustainability, he has put aside little public land. The Washington Post noted in 2012, “President Obama’s [conservation] record remains largely unwritten.” Obama may now be trying to secure his environmental legacy by protecting an area that is known as President Jimmy Carter’s cornerstone achievement. Like Carter, Obama faces similar issues of executive overreach in the latest battle of the war over Alaska’s resources.

In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter listed Alaska wilderness preservation as a campaign initiative in his run for president. As president, Carter faced a Congress that dithered over conservation legislation despite strong public support for environmentalism. With no action from Congress, within a period of two weeks in 1978, Carter and his administration withdrew 154 million acres of wilderness in Alaska. Public reaction was quick and fierce. Carter was burned in effigy in Fairbanks and protests were held around the state. Many felt that Carter violated principles of federalism in his overreach and handicapped Alaska’s resource extraction economy.

Angered by Carter’s unilateral action, Congress quickly responded and passed a bill on the Alaska wilderness; the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) attempted to balance Alaska’s directive to develop its lands with conservation interests. The act included a clause that prevented the President and the Secretary of the Interior from designating new land as federally protected (Obama only changed the status of existing federal land, and did not expand the total land holding). However, with over 104 million acres set aside, it maintained a significant fraction of Carter’s original designation. Carter remains a vaunted figure in conservation circles, the first President to develop an energy policy including conservation as an energy principle. He put aside more acres of wilderness than any other modern president (66.3 million) and remains on lists of the most conservation minded presidents. Obama, however, has put aside the least of any modern president at just 2.1 million acres.

The President’s designation must be ratified by Congress to take permanent effect, but until that time the area will be managed as wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines a wilderness area as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” The definition effectively prohibits permanent human influence in the wilderness area. Alaska’s Republican delegation believes this designation should be postponed until Alaskan officials can discuss plans to begin exploratory drilling in this area. Obama’s designation of ANWR wilderness was cleverly timed to block Republican attempts to explore for oil.

Alaska’s troubled relationship with Federal wilderness policy dates back to its Statehood Compact. When Alaska was granted statehood, almost two-thirds of its land remained in federal control. With large swaths of Alaska unavailable for economic development apart from resource extraction, the federal government entered into a unique revenue sharing agreement with Alaska, agreeing to split revenue 90-10 on federal lands, rather than the typical 50-50 split. In an editorial opposing the Obama administration’s move, the Governor of Alaska, Bill Walker, cited this revenue sharing agreement as a directive for Alaska to develop its natural resources.

Presently, many of the same issues are at play. President Obama’s implicit prevention of oil drilling in the refuge for the remainder of his term outraged Alaska’s congressional delegation. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) spoke harshly about the decision, “That’s not how you treat a state. Show us some respect.” The rest of the Alaska delegation had equally harsh words for Obama. Representative Don Young (R-AK) noted in a press release that the decision “completely undermines the law and the many promises made to the Alaskan people.” Despite arguments about the necessity of drilling for Alaska’s economy and national energy security, anger over the decision is rooted in Alaska’s state history.

Alaska state leaders prize ANWR as prime land for oil drilling. The Energy Information Administration’s report on ANWR in 1998 cited an estimated mean 20 billion barrels of oil. While that number is disputed, the current debate is focused on how much drilling or hydraulic fracturing would affect the refuge. A 2008 follow up report notes, however, that the amount of oil is unlikely to have an impact on global oil prices. With current low oil prices spurred by unforeseen levels of American production, the necessity of drilling is questionable. Despite the debate raging for over 30 years, much is still unknown about ANWR. ANWR’s effect as a panacea for energy policy is debatable. It’s symbolic importance as an emblem of conservation is not.

The wilderness designation only temporarily puts aside the land in ANWR. Congress must ratify the wilderness designation, but Congress is unlikely to act soon. The authority to designate federal land is divided between the President and Congress. The President can designate land as National Monument through the Antiquities Act, though only Congress can designate National Parks, which receive more funding and protection.

Obama and Carter both faced an antagonistic Congress in their final days in office. In the vein of Carter, with no elections left, Obama is left with some decisions to make about conservation. As part of his legacy-building agenda, Obama has chosen to focus on ANWR as the capstone of his conservation record. ANWR’s historic relevance also makes it a perfect battleground for his conservation quest. Despite infuriating local politicians, this designation grants Obama symbolic backing in his conservation legacy.