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New NPR-A plan balances wilderness, industry in the Western Arctic

Bill Mohrwinkel

Our Fairbanks-based business, Arctic Wild, specializes in introducing people to the wonders of Alaska’s wild lands and wildlife. For decades we have guided people from all walks of life and nearly every state into the magical lands north of the Arctic Circle. Some of our favorite places are found in the western Arctic lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The western Arctic is a seemingly endless landscape rich with wildlife. I have been rafting, hiking, and exploring the western Arctic for a decade now. As a guide and Alaskan I am proud of the large, wild public land that we call the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The reserve does not just hold oil and gas, but is home to diverse wildlife that has sustained communities across the Arctic for millennia.

In 1976, Congress gave the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) a unique dual mandate for the Reserve: to facilitate oil and gas production, but to also provide “maximum protection” for special places with important wildlife values. With this in mind, the BLM has recently announced a preferred management plan for the reserve that seeks to balance necessary lands protections with development. The approach is a promising model for land management and is a great step forward towards a balanced approach for this unique and rich area.

The BLM has identified several “Special Areas” within the reserve. These special areas are those most important for wildlife, subsistence, and recreation. These are the areas where caribou birth their young, where you have a better chance of seeing a wolverine than any other place in America, where falcons nest in droves, and where waterfowl congregate by the thousands. Despite their value, these special areas -- including the Colville River, Utukok Uplands, Teshekpuk Lake, Kasegaluk Lagoon, Dease Inlet-Meade River, Peard Bay, and DeLong Mountains -- currently have no lasting protections. Encompassing 11 million acres within the reserve, these special areas should be off-limits to development and deserve the protection offered under the new management plan.

At the same time the BLM’s preferred management plan, Alternative B-2, also allows for 72 percent of the discovered and undiscovered oil in the reserve to be accessed, leased, and developed -- that’s projected to be nearly 550 million barrels of oil.

The plan recognizes that oil and gas activities have a place in the reserve, but that development shouldn’t come at the expense of our most important wild areas or the subsistence and wilderness-dependent economies they support. BLM’s preferred plan is an important step in meeting the reserve’s multi-use mandate while safeguarding Alaska’s wildlife, outdoor experiences, and subsistence traditions.

As the Arctic changes, the management of the reserve is becoming increasingly important. The area supports a stunning diversity of wildlife that is uniquely adapted to the Arctic conditions. With the Arctic warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, it is now more important than ever to make sure we protect the areas that will give wildlife the room they need to adapt to a changing future.

Those changes are also driving increased industry interest in the Arctic further highlighting the need for balance. The two goals of protecting wild spaces and developing oil and gas resources do not have to be exclusive, and the BLM’s preferred management plan shows that.

BLM should adopt this new and visionary plan for the western Arctic. Their conservative approach to land use planning sets us on a path to a future that values, safeguards, and promotes both the energy economy and the long term needs of subsistence users, recreation, and wildlife.

Bill Mohrwinkel is an owner of Arctic Wild, a Fairbanks-based company that leads tours into the Alaska wilderness above the Arctic Circle.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.