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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Ben Greuel: Arctic wildlife refuge too important for oil drilling

By Ben Greuel For The Spokesman-Review

Over the past several weeks, a renewed battle to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been raging across the country. The recent passage of the overwhelmingly unpopular tax bill included a provision to allow drilling in the refuge. Though this bill is a legitimate threat, the fight to protect the Arctic Refuge has just begun.

For 30 years, the Arctic Refuge has remained protected because of the support of the American people. While this recent vote was a setback, we stand ready to fight for America’s last great wilderness for our children, grandchildren and the Gwich’in people, whose livelihood depends on this sacred place. We will not rest. We will not yield. We will not for a moment forsake.

Our own Sen. Maria Cantwell has rallied to stand up for what she knows is right. In a recent hearing, Cantwell stated, “We are never stopping in trying to protect the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.” In 2005, she led a filibuster to protect the refuge from a similar budgetary measure to open it to drilling. This time, we all need to match her grit and unmatched determination in the effort to save the Arctic from destructive oil and gas development. This fight is meaningful not only on a professional level, but also on a very personal level.

In 2008, I walked across the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with my dad and four close friends and saw firsthand the vast and breathtaking beauty of a landscape unlike any other place in North America. The Gwich’in people subsist and live alongside the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates across the land for over a thousand miles each year.

Snow-capped mountains stand in sharp contrast while icy rivers snake their way from peaks to plains. On one rather eventful day of our trip our group encountered a peregrine falcon, a number of Dahl sheep, a distant grizzly bear, thousands of caribou and the ever-elusive wolverine. This was the Arctic as it should be: pure, untouched wilderness protected for wildlife and the people who depend on them.

On a subsequent trip, I ventured over Prudhoe Bay by bush plane and witnessed the future of the Arctic Refuge if exposed to drilling. There were miles of land already scarred by the presence of oil and gas pipelines, roads and other industrial infrastructure. The earth below was stained with brown lines from trucks traveling back and forth. The metallic glare of machinery and pipelines littered the fields for miles.

We have millions of acres of public lands and parks, but we only have one Arctic Refuge. If we allow politicians to decimate it for temporary financial gains, what is to stop them from turning to another valued landscape next? What else will go on the chopping block if the Arctic Refuge is drilled: Yellowstone or Yosemite perhaps?

At this point in the 21st century, with human actions already jeopardizing our climate, we should be reducing our dependencies on oil and gas, not opening pristine and protected wildlife sanctuaries to corporate special interests. Wringing money from the Arctic for short-term and limited financial gain is a temporary solution to a problem that does not exist. Damaging the Arctic with oil and gas development is permanent.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred ground, and the American people have shown time and time again that they are willing to defend it. The Gwich’in people call the coastal plain of the refuge “the sacred place where life begins.” As the process moves forward, it is critical that those who care about the Arctic Refuge stand with them, at every step, to protect their way of life.

As Americans, we have a voice regarding how our public lands are used. Please join me in fighting this threat every step of the way, from the halls of Congress to the courtroom.

Ben Greuel is the Washington state regional director for The Wilderness Society. He has been engaged in Arctic conservation issues for over a decade, including as Alaska program manager for the Conservation Lands Foundation.

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