WASHINGTON -- Environmentalists who have worked for decades to protect Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development on Thursday kicked off a celebration of the 50-year anniversary of the vast sanctuary.
Their goal for the next 50 years, the environmentalists said, is to make permanent the ban on any further oil or gas development in the refuge's coastal plain. And they say there's no greater case for doing that than last week's explosion at an offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens to become as big an environmental disaster as the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska.
"Today, we see an ocean burning," Debbie Sease of the Sierra Club said outside of the Capitol. "We need no further evidence that drilling is dangerous."
The refuge traces its roots to 1960, when then-President Dwight Eisenhower designated the northeast corner of Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. The celebration, sponsored by the Alaska Wilderness League, comes as federal wildlife managers have undertaken the first review in 20 years on how to administer the refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study will look at the overall management of the refuge -- but also will examine the possibility of asking Congress to make the refuge's long-disputed 1.5 million-acre coastal plain off-limits to oil and gas development by designating it as wilderness. Half of the 19.6 million-acre refuge already is designated as wilderness.
The coastal plain is believed to hold billions of barrels of oil, making it one of the nation's best prospects for new onshore oil discoveries. But it is closed to oil companies unless Congress allows development.
"The recent events in the Gulf are an important reminder that there is no such thing as immaculate extraction," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a longtime supporter of preserving the refuge.
No one from Alaska's congressional delegation was at the press conference -- which is not unusual when it comes to Washington, D.C., events that encourage federal officials to write more protections for ANWR.
All three Alaskans in Congress strongly oppose additional wilderness designations within Alaska. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, went so far as to say he would use his role on the Senate Budget Committee to block the Fish and Wildlife Service from budgeting money toward even studying such a designation for ANWR as part of its current review.
But the refuge has longtime supporters with formidable conservation credentials in Congress, including the two Udall cousins: Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, son of a former Interior secretary, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. Both attended Thursday's press conference.
The time has come to fully protect the refuge, said Sen. Mark Udall, who spoke of the time he took a 400-mile, 40-day journey on skis through the Brooks Range.
"We never call it ANWR," he said. "That's just an acronym. This is a wildlife refuge."
His cousin, Sen. Tom Udall, also described his personal experience in the refuge, including a 24-hour trek to the top of a Brooks Range peak while he and the others in his party waited for a boat to be repaired.
Tom Udall noted that his father, Stewart Udall, who died in March, always said it was important to remember the refuge was first protected by a Republican: Eisenhower. And his father, who was U.S. Interior secretary during the Kennedy administration, always liked to point out that Alaska Republican Ted Stevens in his pre-Senate career was one of the Interior Department lawyers working on the issue. (Later, Stevens became the country's biggest proponent of opening the coastal plain to oil and gas exploration.)
"Where are the Republicans on this today?" Tom Udall asked. "Let's get them aboard on this bill."
The Bush administration, backed by a Republican Congress, fought to open the refuge coastal plain to further exploration but was unsuccessful. Now, though, ANWR has a protector in the White House. President Barack Obama hasn't weighed in on whether additional wilderness designation is merited, but he has repeatedly described the refuge as a special place that should be off-limits to oil and gas development.
Additional protection can't happen soon enough, said Luci Beach of Fairbanks, who heads up the Gwich'in Steering Committee that represents Native people whose ancestors have called the refuge home for 20,000 years.
"We're seeing so many changes in Alaska now with climate change," said Beach, adding that many of those changes are man-made, and were changes predicted by her elders. "If they're caused by men, then they can be stopped by men."