YARMOUTH — At more than 19 million acres, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System. It is also one of the last intact landscapes in America, and home to 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species and more than 200 migratory bird species. Established in 1960 to protect its extraordinary wildlife, wilderness and recreational qualities, the Arctic Refuge is a place where natural processes remain mostly uninfluenced by humans.

Congress in 1980 expanded its designation and declared much of it wilderness. It also said that its oil potential should be studied. Another act of Congress and presidential approval can open it to drilling.

But for all its unique beauty and importance for wildlife, the oil industry has continued to urge Congress to open this national treasure to oil drilling.

President Trump has proposed in his fiscal year 2018 budget to open the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to petroleum drilling. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that America needs refuge oil in the trans-Alaska pipeline to reach Trump’s goal of “energy dominance” and to help balance the federal budget.

The Arctic Refuge contains one of the most fragile and ecologically sensitive ecosystems in the world. Its environment is extremely vulnerable to long-lasting disturbance because the harsh climate and short growing seasons provide little time for species to recover.

The proposed oil development would occur on the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain sandwiched between the Arctic Ocean and the Brooks mountain range, and would have serious impacts on species such as polar bear, caribou, musk oxen and hundreds of species of migratory birds. This area is considered the “biological heart” of the refuge, and habitat loss that occurs here will affect the entire Arctic Refuge and beyond.

Oil-related activities such as seismic testing, aircraft and vehicle noise, or even the mere presence of humans nearby can drive mother polar bears away from their den and cubs. Drilling the Arctic Refuge could alter the annual path of the Porcupine caribou herd, one of the longest land mammal migrations in the world. The critical breeding grounds for migratory birds would be severely affected, and could cause population-scale impacts for many species.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently unveiled a budget resolution that mirrored Trump’s provision to allow the refuge to be drilled. This is a policy that past administrations have proposed and past Congresses have rejected.

It is a proposal that is particularly troublesome to me as a person of faith. As people of faith, we are called to protect and celebrate God’s creation. There is perhaps no place where that calling is more important to live out than the Arctic Refuge.

For Alaska’s Gwich’in people, the Arctic Refuge is a critical piece of both their community and their faith. Ninety percent of the Gwich’in is Episcopalian. The Gwich’in people rely heavily on their native lands, and particularly rely on the Porcupine caribou as a primary source of food. More than 70 percent of their diet comes from caribou. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge would jeopardize the survival of those caribou and the way of life for the Gwich’in.

As people of faith, we are also called to care for God’s people – especially the most vulnerable. A clear way to see God’s creation is through the beauty and majesty of public lands like the Arctic Refuge. And a clear way to manifest our calling to care for our neighbor is to protect the Gwich’in people and their way of life.

I was pleased that Sen. Susan Collins recently said: “I believe we can create an energy policy that will provide sufficient energy to meet the needs of today and of future generations without compromising America’s environmentally sensitive areas. With this in mind, I have opposed efforts to open areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Georges Bank off the coast of Maine to drilling.”

As our lawmakers make decisions about our nation’s budget and our priorities, it is my hope that they will follow Sen. Collins’ lead and carry out the call to protect God’s people and God’s creation. I hope that they show reverence for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and that they choose to protect this special place and the Gwich’in people for generations to come.


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.