If the BP Gulf of Mexico and Exxon Valdez oil spills teach us anything, it's that precious ecosystems can be forever damaged by oil.
Half a century ago this week, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for its "unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values." Expanded and renamed, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains the largest and only intact Arctic ecosystem in the United States.
Its ecological values are unparalleled, especially in the coastal plain, the biological heart of the refuge. Like the Statue of Liberty, California's Giant Sequoias and the Everglades, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stands as an American icon.
However, for most of its 50-year existence, the ecological integrity of the refuge has been under fire by the potential for oil drilling in the coastal plain. Oil industry advocates claim drilling would occupy a small footprint, and would be done responsibly, even harmlessly. But as the BP Gulf of Mexico and Exxon Valdez spills so tragically illustrate, ironclad safeguards don't exist in the real world, and risks are always greater than industry claims. What's more, industry response to spills hasn't progressed much at all in the past 50 years; it's still sloppy, arcane and woefully inadequate.
While some say we need domestic oil at any cost to protect national security, government estimates show only a 50 percent chance of finding a nine-month supply of U.S. oil demand on the coastal plain. This paltry amount would take 10 to 15 years to reach market. Real national security would be weaning ourselves from oil as fast as possible, not digging up every last drop. If we're still hooked on oil in 10 or 15 years, we've got bigger problems.
Faced with the terrible specter of climate change, drilling in the coastal plain is unconscionable. Instead we should view the coastal plain as an ecological savings account for our children and their children. It's the least we can do, given the huge climate change deficit we're leaving them.
The highest value of the coastal plain clearly lies in its wilderness and biodiversity. It's one of the few places left where arctic ecological processes continue unrestricted by human manipulation. And it's the only protected area in the U.S. with an unbroken continuum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems. It's home to musk ox, whose numbers are rapidly declining. It's the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, on which the Gwich'in people have relied for thousands of years. It's the most important terrestrial denning area for Alaska's polar bears, who cling to life as climate change melts the ice from beneath them. As ice recedes, land becomes more critical to their survival. If we want Alaska to have any wild polar bears at all for our children and grandchildren, our best hope lies in protecting the coastal refuge.
The refuge is also a breeding ground for birds that winter on six continents. Climate change threatens almost three-fourths of all bird species, but the Arctic refuge gives them just that: refuge. Though the vast majority of Americans -- and Alaskans -- will never step foot on the Arctic Refuge, Americans in all 50 states see birds in their own backyards that begin their lives on its coastal plain.
At this half-century mark, it's time to give the refuge full protection. President Obama should follow the lead of President Eisenhower and designate the "1002" and wilderness areas as the Arctic National Wildlife Monument, protected from all industrial use. This will ensure this priceless Arctic wilderness will remain intact for another 50 years and beyond.
As every former addict knows, the longer it takes to face your addiction, the more you lose: jobs, friends, family, health. Oil is a finite resource. Sooner or later we're going to have to break our oil addiction. The only remaining question is, how much more are we going to lose before we do so?
Let's not lose the Arctic Refuge. Let's urge President Obama to designate it a national monument.
Marybeth Holleman is author of "The Heart of the Sound" and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. She has lived in Alaska for 25 years. www.marybethholleman.com