Thank you for your interest in learning more about our public wild lands in Alaska. Stop by often to find the latest updates and information on all of the special places we work to protect outlined here. You can also find more information about the Places We Protect here.
ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The Center for America Progress released an in-depth analysis that finds the attacks made by the previous administration on the Arctic Refuge and Tongass National Forest could release almost 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — nearly as much pollution as all the world's cars emit in one year. These attacks on protected areas would have exacerbated the climate crisis and should not move forward.
President Biden signs Executive Order to protect the Arctic Refuge
On Day One of the Biden administration, the President signed an Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis. Included in this action is a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is incredible news, after the outgoing administration held a lease sale in their final weeks and awarded leases in their final hours.
The President’s order also includes a review of many of the harmful actions taken by the previous administration that removed protections for other public lands in Alaska. The review includes the exemption from the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule, the massive Willow oil and gas project in the National Petroleum Reserve, and the allowance of unsportsmanlike hunting methods in Alaska national preserves. Below is a list of the agency actions to be placed under review that impact Alaska public lands.
First lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
On January 6, 2021, the Trump administration held the first ever oil and gas lease sale on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, which was a colossal failure financially as well as an attack on public lands.
Of the 1,089,053 acres of the Arctic Refuge available for auction, just over half of the acres -- 12 of 22 offered tracts -- received bids. As the first of two mandated Arctic Refuge lease sales, it should have raised $450 million in revenue for the federal treasury, and instead it raised a mere $7 million. The bids raised approximately $12 million - or an average of $27 per acre - just two dollars more than the minimum bid and half of which taxpayers will split with the state of Alaska. This is laughable compared to the $1.8 billion proponents promised would come from bonus bids on leases. Revenues from this lease sale make up less than one percent of what was promised.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), a state-owned entity, placed the winning bid on 9 tracts, Knik Arm Services on 1 tract, and Regenerate Alaska Inc. on 1 tract. This demonstrates the utter lack of industry interest in developing Arctic Refuge oil. The fact that the State of Alaska was behind the majority of the bidding is also a demonstration of how their special interests, not industry interest, has driven this lease sale process from day one.
All action on the leases auctioned off on Jan. 6 has been suspended — first, by the Inauguration Day order issued by President Biden and subsequently, by a secretarial order that launched a new review of oil development’s potential environmental impacts.
The June 1 order by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland triggered a supplemental environmental impact statement announced on Aug. 3 by the Bureau of Land Management. The pre-sale environmental studies conducted by the Trump administration were flawed. Critics of oil development included all levels of government in Canada. Please voice your support for an end to the Arctic Refuge leasing program by October 4. You can weigh in now! Submit your public comment today. Urge President Biden to keep oil drills out of the Arctic Refuge.
Seismic Exploration Update: A failed rush to approve harmful activity in the Arctic Refuge
At the same time as pursuing a lease sale, very quietly the Trump Interior Department was also in a process for approving a massive new seismic testing program for nearly a half million acres of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain. The proposed program, separate from the lease sale process, involves hundreds of miles of trails resulting from 90,000-pound seismic vehicles traveling with bulldozer convoys towing a camp for up to 180 workers across fragile coastal plain tundra. It also threatened to displace denning polar bears and should require a lengthy environmental review.
The Trump Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ran into challenges in not completing a National Historic Preservation Act review to consider important Native sites, complicating its ability to issue a permit. And we understand that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was considering an Incidental Harassment Authorization (permit) for polar bears was told by the Interior solicitor in Alaska that it would have a hard time legally justifying moving forward given its inability to review the more than 6 million comments it received opposing seismic. (Hat tip to the youth leaders on TikTok and the Campion and Project Impact teams that helped support them.)
An Interior Department representative has stated that work will not proceed on seismic permitting during the supplemental EIS process. The suspension of exploration work now in place includes any consideration of seismic surveys in the refuge’s coastal plain.
What can we do right now to engage in the fight and protect the Arctic Refuge?
Spread the word. Writing a letter to the editor (LTE) to your local or regional newspaper is an effective and easy way to reach a large audience with your message. This is an important tool for organizing, especially now when we have this important opportunity to move protection over for the Arctic Refuge over the finish line.
These administrative actions have bought us time to keep oil drills out of the Arctic Refuge, one of our nation’s most majestic public lands. But with leases in oil company hands and another lease sale mandated by the 2017 Tax Act on the horizon, this is only a temporary fix. We need to restore protections for good, and it’s up to Congress to make that happen.
We must now urge Congress to include protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the upcoming budget reconciliation package -- the same process that opened the Arctic Refuge to begin with -- to ensure this magnificent place remains intact and untouched.
We have talking points and ideas in sample LTEs at this link. Use as they are, change as desired or craft your own letter.
A recent piece published in the Washington Post highlights how the fight to protect the Arctic Refuge is not only a fight for conservation, but a fight led by Indigenous voices for environmental justice. Oil development in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge threatens the way of life for the Gwich’in along with other Arctic Indigenous peoples. A divestment campaign led by the Gwich’in and others pushed all major banks in the United States and Canada to end financing for Arctic drilling, and ultimately steered away major oil companies from bidding on leases in the Arctic Refuge last January.
Urge your representatives to co-sponsor the Arctic Refuge Protection Act
This critical legislation would restore essential protections for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while also safeguarding the subsistence rights of Arctic Indigenous peoples. A provision included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 mandated two oil and gas lease sales for the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge and despite the failed first sale, without congressional action a second sale is still mandated. Legislative action must be taken this Congress to prevent a second sale and restore protections for the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. A support letter for the bill with more than 200 organizations can be found here.
What additional steps are we taking to stop the past Trump administration actions?
One important next step is litigation and we have joined a suit led by the Gwich'in Nation to challenge this decision. There are major deficiencies in the EIS and, in our view, gaping failures to comply with environmental laws including what Congress stipulated in the Tax Act, the longstanding purposes of the Arctic Refuge and much more. In short, we think we have a strong case.
What does Biden's Executive Order mean for the court challenge? It signals, right out of the gate, that the Refuge is a priority for the Biden Administration and sets the stage for follow-up actions by the new Department of Interior to consider the legality of the leases. Our goal of course is to see the Refuge leases canceled, which could come from later administrative action or in the context of our litigation against the validity of the Record of Decision.
TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST
President Biden's day one Executive Order includes a review of the exemption of the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule.
The Tongass National Forest is America’s largest national forest, encompassing the majority of the southeast Alaska panhandle. The region’s residents - 70,000 strong - generally reside in small communities that aren’t accessible by traditional roads. The region’s economy used to be dominated by logging, but as high profit but unsustainable practices of industrial scale clear cutting have been reduced, the economy of the region has transformed to one centered around tourism and fisheries. Each year more than 1 million people come to experience glaciers flowing from the mountains into the sea and iconic wildlife that thrives in one of the largest remaining temperate rainforests in the world.
The Trump administration opened 9.3 million acres of protected Tongass land to road-building and clear-cut logging. Alaska’s national forests were protected under the 2001 Roadless Rule expressly because forested wildlands persist in Alaska on a scale unknown elsewhere in the country. In addition to harboring great natural beauty and iconic wildlife, scientists believe that retaining the intact roadless areas of the Tongass is a “key element” in sustaining robust salmon runs, and they can also be key to securing a stable climate for our future.
So much hard work was done over the course of the public comment period on the proposed Alaska specific Roadless Rule exemption draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)—400,000 individual comments were submitted; 13 tribes and city governments in SE Alaska, 254 commercial fisherman in SE Alaska, more than 100 elected officials, nearly 200 businesses in Alaska and the lower-48, and 234 scientists told the U.S. Forest Service that they oppose removing Roadless Rule protections. Altogether 96% of all of the comments received were in support of keeping Roadless Rule protections.
This opinion piece published in the Hill by former U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and Deputy Chief Jim Furnish calls for President Biden to reinstate roadless protections in the Tongass. It outlines the climate importance of an intact Tongass, which stores 8% of the carbon of the rest of the nation’s national forests. A return to old-growth logging in areas previously protected by the Roadless Rule would irreparably harm this vital carbon sink.
We will continue to build support for the Roadless Area Conservation Act in both the House and Senate.
Spring of 2021 finds the Arctic Ocean has been much warmer than the twenty year average, a phenomenon that scientists have linked to extreme weather events elsewhere including the freeze that swept the southern United States and caused a crisis in Texas. It is increasingly important that we take action to avoid further climate change in the Arctic, which is already warming up to three times faster than the global average. New drilling in the Arctic Ocean threatens to develop a reserve of 23.6 billion barrels of oil and 104 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This has the potential to release 15.8 billion tons of carbon if exploited – an amount equivalent to the emissions from all U.S. transportation modes for nearly a decade.
In 2015 and 2016, President Obama issued a landmark Executive Order (EO) withdrawing 98% of the Arctic Ocean from future oil drilling. President Trump immediately tried to revoke this withdrawal with his own EO, which we challenged in the courts. Judge Sharon Gleason, a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Alaska, vacated the Trump EO and ruled that a president does have the authority to withdraw acres from development but that a future president does not have the authority to reverse those withdrawals without congressional approval.
In 2020, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation relinquished its 21 leases in the Beaufort Sea, leases purchased from Shell when the oil major ended its own drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean. These leases were some of the last remaining in industry hands, so with this change, only 13 leases (covering about 58,000 acres, down from a peak of more than four million) remain in America's Arctic Ocean.
NATIONAL PETROLEUM RESERVE-ALASKA
In 2019 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) started the process to create a new integrated activity plan (IAP) for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. All action alternatives propose opening additional areas in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to oil and gas leasing and industrial activity, and all eliminate the Colville River Special Area. BLM should instead strengthen protections for these special areas, not undermine or erase them from the map.
The final comment period of the Integrated Activity Plan draft Environmental Impact Statement is now closed and we are waiting on the BLM for further action on this plan. While the League continues to build public support to keep current protections in place, we also worked with Representatives Lowenthal (D-CA), Grijalva (D-AZ) and Huffman (D-CA)—and 45 of their colleagues who sent a letter to BLM in opposition to the previous administration’s proposed alternatives. You can read their letter here.