President Obama has proposed setting aside more than 12 million acres of the Alaska coast as wilderness in a move that will pit him against Republicans from the state.
Obama’s plans to impose strict federal protections over an expanded portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would keep Alaskans from accessing the wealth of petroleum reserves that lay below the “fragile” habitat there.
“I’m very proud that my Department of Interior has put forward a comprehensive plan to make sure we’re protecting the refuge and that we’re designating new areas, including coastal plains, for preservation,” the president said from his seat aboard Air Force Once in a video released Sunday.
“I’m going to be calling on Congress to make sure that they take it one step further: designating it as a wilderness,” Obama said.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Bill Walker were among the Alaska lawmakers who immediately criticized the White House’s move.
Sullivan called the proposed designation a “war on Alaskan families.”
“If Congress chooses to act, it would be the largest-ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago,” the Interior Department said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “faces growing challenges that require a thoughtful and comprehensive management strategy” in a statement Sunday.
“The incorporation of large portions of the refuge into the National Wilderness Preservation System will ensure we protect this outstanding landscape and its inhabitants for our children and generations that follow,” Ashe said.
Obama’s proposal would also block off parts of the Arctic Ocean from drilling, the Washington Post reported.
Murkowski fiercely defended her state against such perceived federal overreach.
"It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” she said in a statement Sunday. “The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska."