By Dan Ritzman, Arctic Wild Guide and Northwest Director for the Sierra Club.
Dan will be adding conservation updates and news to our blog monthly.
The Arctic Refuge turns 49 today, and it is time to think about the many dedicated people who
have protected the refuge for the past 50 years.
Back in the 1950s two stellar adventurers and outstanding conservationists – Olaus and Mardi Murie visited the northeastern corner of Alaska. The federal government asked them to scope out the wildlife and wilderness values of this little known part of the North America. Long story short, the Muries discovered a great wilderness and dedicated a good portion of the rest of their lives to protecting it; the Arctic National Wildlife Range was created by President Eisenhower on Dec. 6, 1960. The effort by the Muries and others in pushing for the creation of the Arctic Range set the example that would be followed over the next 50 years– the importance of grassroots support and pressure.
During the 1970s the conservation community pushed to pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) to protect millions of acres of critical wildlife habitat and special places across Alaska. One of the most controversial parts of this massive legislation was the coastal plain of the Arctic Range. The oil industry and their friends in DC wanted the coastal plain opened to oil development. Conservationists, scientists and many in the Alaska Native community wanted to see this area included in the Wilderness provisions of ANILCA. In the end, the ANILCA passed and was signed by President Carter in December of 1980. However, Congress settled on a compromise – the coastal plain was not put in Wilderness, yet it would require another act of Congress to open it to oil development – and this set up one of the most iconic struggles of the last 30 years. (The ANILCA changed the name of the Range to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expanded it to almost 20 million acres. Still, the 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain remained the ‘biological heart’ and ground zero for the oil controversy.)
In the 1980s under President Reagan the oil industry yet again set their sights on the coastal plain. They made a serious push to include Arctic Refuge drilling in an energy bill. This prompted intense public reaction. In the spirit of the Muries and the champions of ANILCA, thousands of people engaged to resist the efforts of oil lobbyists. Many people like Glendon Brunk and Lenny Kohm put their lives on hold and took to the road to share the importance of the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. The two of them gave thousands of slideshows to Americans across the country and urged folks to stand up to do something to protect this special place. The situation was pretty desperate.
Then the worst oil disaster in America’s history happened. The Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling at least 11 million gallons of oil. This cooled the jets of the oil lobbyists, and the controversial disaster helped to keep the Refuge protected.
Again in the mid-90s the oil industry, with the help of Newt Gingrich and the ‘Republican Revolution’ put the Alaska’s delegation (Young, Murkowski, and Stevens) in powerful positions. They made another run at opening the Refuge, and once again people from all across the country and all walks of life stepped up to meet the challenge.
This is where I enter the picture. I moved to Alaska and began working at the Northern Alaska
Environmental Center in Fairbanks. On a lobby trip to Washington DC I met Ron Yarnell the owner of Arctic Wild, and convinced Ron that with my guiding background he should let me lead trips for him. I found myself on the Hulahula River which cuts right across the coastal plain and drains into the Arctic Ocean. I fell in love with the place and a big part of my life ever since has been working with folks across the county to keep the oil industry out of the Refuge. Thanks to the continued efforts of people like Lenny and Glendon, and Pam Miller, and David van den Berg, Adam Kolton, Brian O’Donnell and hundreds of others, President Clinton stepped up and vetoed the bill with Arctic drilling in it. Newt blinked and the Arctic was safe again.
It’s still not over. In 2000 the Supreme Court appointed Bush 2 to the Presidency. Many political observers believed that the Refuge was doomed. But once again they discounted the power of the will of the people. It has been demonstrated to me over and over that our political leaders can be moved. Again when it looked bad, some great leaders like Cindy Shogan stepped up. During this time I was living in Washington DC running the national grassroots efforts of the Alaska Coalition. We had organizers in key states across the country and it felt like we had volunteers everywhere.
We lost a key vote early in the House of Representatives and put all of our attention on the Senate. There were rallies across the country in big cities and small towns and there was creativity. In North Dakota an entire congregation of a Unitarian Church signed a letter to their Senator asking for protection of the coastal plain and it just so happened that that Senator’s father was the founder of that particular church. Activists rode their bikes across the country giving slideshows; all the stops were pulled out. Eventually the fight turned back to the House and we needed to convince the moderate Republicans to admit that conservation is a bipartisan issue. It appeared the refuge was going to be developed. But again people rose to the occasion. One of those moderates was Rep Reichert from WA. When he took office, Reichert looked like a vote against the Arctic Refuge but then the activists in his area started to organize. Working with Shannon Harp, a Sierra Club organizer, they put together a plan to show Reichert that the people of his District really wanted to protect the Refuge – that this was the right thing to do. After months of letters and phone calls and rallies, once again conservation prevailed.
Not only did Rep. Reichert vote to protect the Refuge but he became a leader on the Republican side for protecting the Refuge and other special places!
Unfotunately, this part of the story for me has a tragic ending. I moved to Seattle and took a job with the Sierra Club. Shannon Harp was one of the organizers in my region. Shannon’s life came to a senseless end in December of 2007 – a terrible blow to her family, her friends and the community. Shannon, incredibly, had never been to the Arctic Refuge. She still did her best to protect the place and made a lasting impression on at least one important decision maker. When I’m at my desk I can look up and see a poster that Shannon and the Sierra Club created with the Alaska Coalition. It highlights that drilling in the Refuge will not save any money at the gas pump and that drilling will ruin an amazing place for future generations. Working to protect the Refuge was one of Shannon’s gifts to future generations.
As we count down to the golden anniversary of the Arctic Refuge, we should remember all of the people who have worked hard to give this gift to future generations. I think our soul needs wild places and sometimes it is only through very strenuous action that these places are able to stay wild.
Thanks to all of you who have worked for the refuge.