The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of America's last remaining wild landscapes, unspoiled and vast, that exists as it has for millennia. Thankfully, the federal government recently recommended that the refuge's fragile coastal plain and other important areas should be permanently protected as congressionally designated wilderness areas.
This is an enormous step by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- which is in charge of this 19 million-acre parcel of federal land -- and shows that land managers recognize the values of the refuge's wilderness, and the need to preserve them for America's future.
As an Alaskan, I recognize the state's dependence on oil revenue, and the importance of putting people to work. But this is our nation's largest state, and some places are simply too special to drill.
The Arctic Refuge is a spectacular landscape of tundra and mountains unlike any other in the United States. It is home to polar and grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, moose, fish and migratory birds, not to mention the incredible Porcupine caribou herd, which relies on the refuge's coastal plain as a calving ground.
The Gwich'in people have lived in the area for thousands of years, sustaining countless generations with the refuge's subsistence resources, especially caribou. They call the coastal plain "Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit," or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.
Oil companies have long sought permission to drill here. But to allow industrial infrastructure like roads, drilling rigs and pipelines in this fragile habitat -- not to mention the related air pollution and oil spills -- could harm the caribou and threaten the culture and survival of Gwich'in villages.
The Arctic Refuge, of course, belongs to all Americans. It is a vital piece of our nation's public lands legacy. It is our last chance to preserve, fully intact, millions of acres of mostly pristine, wild land in its natural state. Protecting the refuge is important not only because we owe it to future generations, but also because it would be immediately beneficial to all Americans. Its diverse and rich ecology also has global significance. About the same size as South Carolina, the refuge is managed to preserve its natural state with a diversity of plants and animals. Here, scientists can monitor and understand natural systems that have not been altered by human activity.
Researchers visit the refuge to study wildlife behavior, climate change and how plants and animals cope with a warming environment. Alaska Natives engage in subsistence activities like hunting and fishing, which also bring sportsmen to the refuge. And the rivers, mountains and tundra attract visitors from around the world for recreational pursuits like float trips, photography, hiking and viewing wildlife.
Lowell Sumner, a pioneering biologist with the National Park Service, said of the refuge, "Here still survives one of Planet Earth's own works of art. This one symbolizes freedom: freedom to continue, unhindered and forever if we are willing, the particular story of Planet Earth unfolding here."
Protecting the refuge by designating wilderness will ensure that all of its recreational, scenic, scientific and cultural wonders will continue to be one of America's greatest public treasures.
We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to all the people who will come after us.
Darby Stanchfield was born and raised in Kodiak, where her father was a commercial fisherman. She is an actress who stars in the ABC political drama series "Scandal" and is an active board member of the Environmental Media Association.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.
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