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Secretary Zinke has it wrong on special interests in Alaska

  • Author: Nils Warnock
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 31, 2017
  • Published December 31, 2017

There are a lot of whopper lies coming out of the current administration about our public lands but perhaps the biggest one was faithfully recited by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a recent interview with the Anchorage Daily News:

"Special interests now, in many cases, are those that want to keep you off the land — that want to make it wilderness and wilderness only and restrict the American public from using the land," he said.

A caribou finds coolness and relief from mosquitoes on a snowbank along the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This photograph was taken in the 1002 coastal plain area of the refuge, where exploratory oil drilling would take place. (RICHARD J. MURPHY / ADN archive 2005)

The fact is that almost all public lands in Alaska, including land in the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, land in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and land in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — areas Secretary Zinke implied were somehow not open to the public — are open for us to use. You might not be able to build a road through those areas, but the land is your land where you can hike, hunt, fish, bird and enjoy and experience these wild areas of profound beauty and importance.
Contrast that with Secretary Zinke's various proposals to open up our public lands in Alaska. One of the most important ones to him involves leasing out millions of acres of northern Alaskan public lands, including parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Western Arctic, to the oil and gas industry.

Now, perhaps you have never been to an industrial oil development area. I can give some insight as I spent numerous summers in the late 1980s and early 1990s working as a biologist up in the giant Prudhoe Bay field that lies between the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In those days, you entered through a security gate run by ex-military where they checked your ID and decided whether to allow you to enter the region or not. You were not allowed to carry a gun there (never mind hunt), and they wanted you to wear a hard hat, steel-toed boots, and carry a monitor around that detects deadly hydrogen sulfide gas (a potential by-product of drilling for petroleum) when you walked around the tundra (and this only after you checked into a local control center for permission).

There was nothing open about this industrial landscape and this remains true today.

Industrial areas, be it a mine or an oil field, are locked-up lands, accessible only by permission of the some of the biggest special interest groups in the world. The Trump administration is not trying to keep the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge open to the public, they are making decisions that would close them off to all but the wealthiest corporations who pay a fortune in lobbying   fees and political contributions to make enormous profits on lands that belong to all of us. On the other hand, many groups are working hard to ensure that parts of our world stay the way they were created, for your children and their children to enjoy. What is special interest about that?

Nils Warnock is executive director for Audubon Alaska, the state office for the National Audubon Society, which represents members and supporters who live, work and enjoy birds in Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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