Keep hunting, fishing, and wildlife a priority for Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve

Rob DriesleinIf you’ve ever viewed a map of Alaska, you likely noticed a huge piece of land on the North Slope:  National Petroleum Reserve. Looks foreboding, almost Mordor-ish for those of you in a J.R.R. Tolkien frame of mind this weekend.

At more than 22 million acres, the National Petroleum Reserve is the largest land management unit in the United States. It covers a wildlife-filled Arctic landscape the size of Indiana.

Despite two wilderness trips to Alaska, I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little about the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska before Wednesday. That’s  when I sat down with Ben Greuel of the Conservation Lands Foundation as well as Lois Norrgard from the Alaska Wilderness League. My friend Gary Botzek, of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, (and the 2011 Outdoor News Man of the Year) brokered the meeting.

After chatting with them (and researching the area since then), I suddenly want to explore the NPR-A. I’m guessing Arctic char and grayling swim in its rivers, and a guy would have some close encounters with charismatic megafauna like wolves, bears, caribou, and moose.

After being managed by the U.S. Navy for most of its history, Congress transferred the NPR-A to the Bureau of Land Management in 1976. Though Congress did set aside the Reserve for oil and gas development, it also explicitly called on the Secretary of the Interior to protect certain surface values like recreation, scenery, subsistence, wildlife and fish in the legislation that created the reserve – a dual mandate of sorts. Since 2010, Greuel explained, the Obama administration has been developing a long-term management plan for the land. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed the BLM to consider priorities for the property like oil and gas leasing, protected areas for wildlife, and weigh impacts to subsistence resources.

On Aug. 13, Salazar announced that BLM is moving forward with a preferred alternative (B-2) for the management plan that strikes a good balance between responsible development and conservation of special areas.

Courtesy of Alaska Wilderness LeagueKudos to Salazar and the administration. The alternative makes 72 percent of the projected oil in the reserve available for leasing but protects some prime waterfowl habitat around Teshepuk Lake, the Utukok Uplands and some other areas. In the process of creating this alternative, the BLM considered over 400,000 public comments from scientists, sportsmen, Alaskan native communities, and other citizens around the country, according to the Alaska Wilderness League.

Sounds like a reasonable, good government approach to me.

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey Drieslein, weren’t you the guy who demanded we keep oil rigs off the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a few years back? Now you want the National Petroleum Reserve, too?”

Yeah, I was one of those guys, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud that we got then-U.S. Senate candidate Norm Coleman on the record about not drilling in ANWR during a debate at Game Fair back in 2002, and I’m proud that later, as a U.S. senator, he stuck to his word.

The U.S. government set aside the National Petroleum Reserve for, go figure, gas and energy production, and that should be its primary use. I’m not suggesting we convert wide swaths of it into national monuments.

Let’s recognize, however, that this property contains incredible wildlife resources and recreational opportunities. With a little planning, maybe we can have energy, wildlife habitat, and maintain hunting and fishing opportunities, too. Some polar bears and Arctic foxes are going have to move when road builders and well-drillers roll across the NPR-A. But those same industry folks can agree to respect some pristine lands – where two caribou herds calve their young each spring, along with wetlands that produce thousands of pintails, geese, and tundra swans that cross the entire continent, including Minnesota.

Courtesy of Alaska Wilderness LeagueThose radicals at Ducks Unlimited agree with me. In fact, they’ve advocated for complete protection of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area in the northeast quadrant of NPR-A. They say it contains “irreplaceable basin habitats that meet the needs of breeding waterfowl and molting geese.” It hosts a sizable percentage of the continent’s Pacific brant, white-fronted geese that migrate through the Central and Mississippi flyways, and a growing number of lesser snows and Canada geese. Alternative B-2 makes these important lands around Teshekpuk Lake ineligible for leasing. Here are comments from DU about the NPR-A in an op-ed that appeared on cnn.com.

The North Slope of Alaska has a significant industrial presence. The state-owned land around Prudhoe Bay east of the NPR-A is one extreme. It’s very developed for gas and oil drilling. ANWR, still farther east on the North Slope, is the other extreme, undeveloped and relatively pristine. Maybe the NPR-A can represent a balanced middle ground, where we capture its gas and oil, and build some pipelines, but make efforts to respect at least portions of the surface and the wildlife that thrives there. The National Wildlife Federation summarizes some fine arguments in favor of the alternative in its letter to Salazar here.

Photo courtesy of Richard SpenerThe Obama adminstration could announce its final decision on its preferred alternative any day. Every American owns this land and should chime in on how we manage it. Maybe you think it should be a developer’s delight or, at the other extreme, a new national wilderness area. I disagree with both views, because I’m practical enough to recognize the nation needs those oil reserves for national security (even though latest estimates suggest there’s less oil there than previously believed), but we can extract that oil responsibly.

I’ll paraphrase Minnesota’s own Gov. Mark Dayton regarding another extraction industry: mining. We’re going to have mining, but we’re going to do it right. Make sense, and I think America can apply the same smart approach to the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

Want to chime in? Follow these links. The first one is via the National Wildlife Federation.

This one goes directly to the Bureau of Land Management.

Finally, here’s a generic email address for the Department of Interior.

For more information on the reserve, check out the Alaska Wilderness League website.

Alaska Audubon also has ample information via its website.

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