Protecting Alaskan wilderness

Based on the reactions of Alaska Republicans, one might think that President Barack Obama had decided to unilaterally ban guns and snowmobiles from the 49th state instead of merely proposing to upgrade the protected status for certain federally-owned land from "national wildlife refuge" to "wilderness area." Such is the anger and resentment that seems to accompany protecting a pristine environment in a state closely tied to the energy industry.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski quickly pulled out the Iran card. "I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska," she huffed in an official statement promising to "fight back with every resource at our disposal." Fellow Sen. Dan Sullivan described the designation as a "war on Alaska families" and an example of President Obama "thumbing his nose at the citizens of a sovereign state."


Gov. Bill Walker is apparently willing to throw the rest of the state under the Exxon-Mobil (or British Petroleum, take your pick) bus, promising to consider increasing oil exploration and production on state-owned lands to compensate. But that was pretty tame compared to Rep. Don Young who tweeted that the decision was politically motivated and "akin 2 spitting in our faces & telling us it's raining outside."

If nothing else, the hysteria proved that former Gov. Sarah Palin's customary hyperbole has plenty of local competition. It also suggests that falling oil prices — and plummeting tax revenues from Alaska drilling — have put quite a scare in the political establishment. Oil-related taxes pay nine out of 10 dollars in the state's operating budget, and panic is setting in.


All those critics who complain that Maryland has tied its economy too closely to federal spending ought to be shaking a finger more vigorously at Alaska, which is far more dependent on oil than the Free State will ever be on government. And Gov. Larry Hogan ought to be quite pleased he's facing a relatively minor budget shortfall in Annapolis compared to a $3.5 billion whopper in Juneau. Perhaps it's time Alaska started acting like a state, instead of a territory, and stopped refunding so much of its oil revenues directly to its citizens.

What the Obama administration has done is merely state its intention to ask Congress to designate more than 12 million acres in the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. And unless Congress reverses that decision, those protections will remain in place. It's similar to steps that have been taken to protect Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, advocates point out, and yes, it means banning a range of human activity from drilling to road construction.

Alaska deserves a voice in that decision, but so do the other citizens of this country. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was not created a half-century ago to simply keep tabs on polar bears and wolves until Alaskans could find a way to exploit its resources. It was created to preserve a pristine arctic and subarctic ecosystem, the only one of its kind in the United States. That function is antithetical to oil production.

Salt marshes, tundra vegetation, floating ice and other features of the refuge may not be as scenic as Yosemite, but that doesn't make them any less valuable. And why risk it for the sake of fossil fuel extraction at a time when the U.S. faces a serious threat from climate change? It's like responding to America's obesity threat by asking candy stores to keep longer hours — it's not a healthy or sustainable strategy. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not create more and more of them until we've fully exhausted our supply.

Republicans can claim Mr. Obama is abusing his executive authority all they like, but if they really want to see ANWR fully exploited, they need only produce sufficient votes in Congress (and they'd better produce a veto-proof majority by the looks of it). Fully preserving natural resources already designated for preservation so that they will be inherited by future generations seems like a good default position to us and not a "war on Alaska families" by any stretch. If Alaskans want to find a culprit for their economic woes, let them blame lower 48 shale deposits and OPEC's decision to maintain oil production in the wake of higher inventories, not a sensible approach to wildlife preservation.