Remembering Hetch Hetchy, Glen Canyon In The Fight To Save The Arctic Refuge

Today the Senate voted 51-49 to approve the first stage of a complicated multi-part budget reconciliation process that, if the Alaska congressional delegation gets its way, will attach drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on to a massive package of tax cuts.

This is a ploy designed to avoid the normal 60-vote threshold in the Senate that all controversial issues are subject to and ram through drilling in the Arctic Refuge with only 50 votes. The Senate, on a 52-48 vote, also rejected an amendment from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) that would have removed the Arctic Refuge from the budget process.

Such a backdoor measure will destroy America’s greatest wildlife refuge and its unparalleled wilderness.

Passage of the Senate budget resolution is only step one – there will be more votes to come, and the contour of the tax package itself is already facing GOP splintering. But make no mistake. The Arctic Refuge faces the gravest threat in its history, and this week’s initial Senate vote is a wake-up call for everyone who cares about the fate of nation’s most iconic wilderness, about our ability to transition to a clean energy future, and about what could be lost that can never be pieced together again.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Florian Schulz /

In thinking about what’s at stake, it is important to remind ourselves of what it means if we lose: not just a vote or a political skirmish but a cherished landscape with abundant fish and wildlife.

More than a century ago, John Muir and the Sierra Club lost the fight to block Hetch Hetchy dam from being built in Yosemite National Park, drowning a granite ringed valley of towering waterfalls. Today, what we know of that valley is from Muir’s writings and old photographs and, perhaps, from imagining what it would be like if Yosemite Valley had a twin 17 miles to the south.

The Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite National Park (Flickr Creative Commons)

Later, another famed Sierra Club leader, David Brower, led an unsuccessful fight to stop the Glen Canyon Dam, which created the Lake Powell reservoir and in the process destroyed a section of the Colorado River said to be as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon. Some of the politicians who supported the project including conservationists like Senators Barry Goldwater, Rep. Mo Udall (D-AZ) and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall would all later express deep regret.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge doesn’t have to be another Hetch Hetchy or Glen Canyon. We can’t let it. In fact, for more than half a century the Arctic Refuge has represented a promise made and a promise kept to the American people.

The Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona (Flickr Creative Commons)

In the 1950s, Olaus and Mardy Murie, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass and many others led a campaign that persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower to protect the northeast corner of Alaska for its “unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.” At the same time, 20 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic coastal lands were made available to the State of Alaska for future development. These lands would become part of a sweeping industrial sprawl that includes Prudhoe Bay and associated oil fields, consuming more than 1,000 square miles.

Is this the future we want for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? (Florian Schulz /

Blind to climate change, widespread oil and gas development continues on Alaska’s North Slope. The Arctic Refuge stands alone as the only conservation area with a fringe of Arctic coast that is off limits to oil and gas drilling. This narrow Coastal Plain thrives with life from denning polar bears in the winter, to the tens of thousands of newborn caribou calves in the spring, to the millions of nesting birds that fly there from six continents. Every single year.

Time and time again, millions of Americans from all walks of life have let their voices be heard and have sent a clear message that this landscape must remain, as it has, protected in perpetuity.

The Gwich’in Gathering in Arctic Village, Alaska, organized by the Gwich’in Steering Committee (Alaska Wilderness League)

Now is the time for every American who values our national parks, our wildlife refuges and all of our precious public lands to join the fight. Help make sure that the Arctic Refuge remains a wilderness home for its rich diversity of life. Stand with the Gwich’in people, whose subsistence lifestyle and culture depend on protecting “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” – the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” Speak out for a clean energy future that transitions toward cleaner sources of energy and addresses climate change. Finally, in this era when so many of our values are under siege, fight to restore what has historically been a bipartisan commitment to conservation. With your help, we can and will defend the wildest place left in America.

Take action to protect the Arctic Refuge here.