The U.S. Department of Interior took its first official step in opening up the refuge for drilling on Thursday, publishing a notice in the Federal Register that said it would begin the environmental analysis procedure.
Long a priority for Republican lawmakers and vehemently opposed by Democrats, drilling in the refuge is sure to be a flashpoint for partisan contention for the entirety of the 60-day public comment period that opens today.
Environmentalists were swift to criticize Trump’s latest signal that the administration favors energy development over conservation on America’s public lands.
“The Trump administration’s reckless dash to expedite drilling and destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will only hasten a trip to the courthouse,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife. “We will not stand by and watch them desecrate this fragile landscape.”
During a recent speech at a GOP conference in West Virginia, Trump said that he “really didn’t care” about opening the refuge for drilling until he learned about the repeated attempts and failures of previous Republican Presidents.
“I really didn’t care about it, and then when I heard that everybody wanted it — for 40 years, they’ve been trying to get it approved, and I said, ‘Make sure you don’t lose ANWR,’” Trump said.
Located in the northern stretch of Alaska, the conservation zone is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States, encompassing about 30,000 square miles of undeveloped land.
Beyond the refuge’s value as unique habitat for polar bears, caribou and other sensitive and threatened wildlife species, it is a highly symbolic corner of the North American continent.
In 1953, George Collins, a planner with the National Park Service, and Lowell Sumner, a biologist, wrote an article that called the refuge “The Last Great Wilderness.”
The area was first protected under the administration of Dwight Eisenhower in 1960.
In 1977, deposits of oil and gas were discovered in the coastal plain area, known formally as the 1002 area and consisting of about 1.5 million acres.
While oil and gas proponents point to the economic benefits of drilling in the area, environmentalists have pointed to the area’s importance for the Porcupine caribou herd, which use the area as a calving ground.
The herd is named after the Porcupine River, which is in proximity to the area the Trump administration has identified as ripe for development.
The fight over drilling in the area has evolved over the ensuing decades, incorporating partisan battles over climate change and its effects.
Environmentalists have come to cite polar bear habitat along with caribou as salient reasons for preventing drilling in the refuge.
The reopening of the refuge for drilling was included as a provision, or rider, in the latest tax bill passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump earlier this year.
But the administration’s move on Thursday to open the public comment period is a signal to environmentalists that the Trump administration is more intent on energy development than a fair process.
“By pushing for a lease sale next year, the administration is admitting that they have no intention of seriously evaluating the negative impacts of oil development on wildlife and these wild lands, which science tells us are significant,” said Jamie Williams, the president of The Wilderness Society.