A national conservation group is urging President Barack Obama to enhance his environmental legacy by creating marine national monuments in Alaska for the first time.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility announced Monday that more than 100,000 people had signed an online petition requesting that Obama use his executive powers to create marine monuments in Alaska to help protect iconic Alaska animals such as polar bears, bowhead whales and wild salmon.
The announcement by PEER came hours before the president was scheduled to arrive in Alaska, with environmental groups accusing him of hypocrisy for allowing oil drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean while simultaneously pushing for reduced global greenhouse gas emissions.
PEER said several marine mammal and seabird populations are threatened by climate change and other factors. With Alaska containing half the nation's shoreline, Obama should invoke the Antiquities Act before he leaves office to declare monuments in the Aleutian Islands, Bering Strait and the U.S. Arctic Ocean, PEER said.
"There is not one square inch of permanently federally protected waters in Alaska, and that is a travesty in my view," said Rick Steiner, a retired marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska who wrote the petition for the group. Steiner has also been active for years on oil-spill prevention and response and has sought protection for wolf populations that move in and out of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Some areas of the continental shelf in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas have been withdrawn from development by Obama, but a future president could undo those protections. No president has ever reversed a monument designation, Steiner said
The petition, forwarded to the White House, could touch a nerve among some of Alaska's political leaders, who have said they fear Obama will take unilateral steps to lock up more federal lands in Alaska.
Such a move is not expected to happen on the president's three-day trip to the state. Gov. Bill Walker and Sen. Lisa Murkowski said they have been assured the president plans no "surprises" for the state on this visit.
Earlier this year Obama enraged some Alaska legislators by withdrawing waters off Alaska's coasts from oil and gas leasing shortly before Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the state, and pushed for new protections in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Steiner and PEER have previously called for creation of an Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary. But earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration denied that request as being overbroad in scope and lacking in widespread support, prompting the push for executive action.