Tester letter unheeded: Republicans move closer to opening ANWR to drilling

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the historical home of the Gwich’in people and the place where a herd of nearly 200,000 caribou travel each year to birth their young. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As members of the U.S. Senate this week prepare to advance legislation that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, conservation advocates are urging Congress to reject the measure.

On Tuesday, the Missoula-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers took the lead by releasing a film promoting ANWR’s pristine environment and wild terrain. It’s one of several national campaigns aimed at blocking the Republican effort to open the refuge to drilling.

The group contends there other places more suited for oil and gas development.

“You can’t be seen as a public lands champion if you’re on the wrong side of history,” said BHA Conservation Director John Gale. “Sportsmen and women are looking to our elected officials to take action at this crucial moment in support of this unique place.”

On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a markup of the bill by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has championed the measure as an economic booster.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester warned last week that Republican leadership may use the budget resolution to sell off public lands and open ANWR to drilling to reduce the federal deficit.

In a letter signed by Democratic senators in New Mexico, Oregon, Colorado and Washington, Tester urged Murkowski not to use the federal budget as a tool to drill in the refuge or raise revenue by selling public lands.

For now, they have Backcountry Hunters and Anglers on their side, along with public opinion. Polls commissioned by the outdoors group over the summer in Arizona and Colorado showed strong public opposition to energy development in the refuge.

In Arizona, 61 percent of voters opposed the proposal, along with 58 percent of Colorado voters.

“Strong, sound Senate leadership is needed now more than ever to ensure that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains wild and free from energy development that belongs in more appropriate and productive places,” said Gale.

ANWR was established in 1960 by President Eisenhower “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.” The refuge’s 19.5 million acres, including 8 million acres of wilderness, provide habitat to iconic game species including grizzlies, Dall sheep and caribou.

Republicans in the past have pushed to open as much as 1.5 million acres of the refuge along the coastal plain to oil and gas exploration. Democrats succeeded in blocking the measure in recent years, though Republicans now have the majority in both houses of Congress as well as the presidency.